The first letter from a person I never met was inside a green envelope and landed unceremoniously atop my desk on Oct. 20, 2011. It started this way.
“Dear Mr. Taylor,
“The other day the Times-News ran an editorial which mentioned, in part, the problems the Erich and Hornbuckle families are dealing with as the result of the injuries suffered by members of their households. The editorial ended with “THUMBS DOWN to the fickle nature of fate. And our best wishes for recovery to Erich and his family.”
Inside the neat folds of paper were 10 crisp $100 bills.
And thus began one of the most unusual and rewarding relationships in my life inside and outside of journalism. The letter continued:
“Life is often difficult, and frequently seems unfair, and we often struggle with asking ourselves, ‘Why?’ things happen the way they do. It made me think of the story where Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who had been blind from birth, and the disciples asked Jesus, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?’ Jesus replied, ‘Neither has this man sinned, nor his parents: but with the works of God should be made manifest in him.’ And then Jesus gave him his sight.
“I believe, Mr. Taylor, that sometimes God allows what seems to be misfortune to befall us or others so that, as with the blind man, His works may be made manifest, and to allow the ones of us who can to do His will here on earth, and show his love and compassion. We are His hands and His voice, if we choose to be.
“I am enclosing something to assist the Erich and Hornbuckle families. Since I do not know how to get in touch with them, I hope you will do me the favor of seeing that this gets to them, half to each. If you would do this I would be greatly appreciative. Thank you for bringing these families’ needs to the public’s awareness. I hope you will continue to let the public know how they can be of assistance to their neighbors in the local area.
Over the next five years I would hear from this unknown person a few dozen times and ultimately he gave more than $50,000 to people in Alamance County like Bobby Erich and David Hornbuckle — people impacted by life events beyond their control. Bobby Erich was a part-time employee with the Burlington Recreation and Parks Department who suffered a freak injury when a softball player taking practice swings released the bat and the handle slipped through a chain-link fence striking Erich and propelling his head into a light panel. Erich has never fully recovered from the injury that left him in critical condition. David Hornbuckle of Haw River was also seriously injured in a demolition incident in downtown Burlington the previous year and was still struggling as a result of a building’s partial collapse on top of him. The accident left him unable to stand or sit for long period of time, without a job and lacking insurance.
The first envelope was not delivered by routine mail, but I found it on my desk. The donor was a man, our receptionist Vicky Davis told me. That, a handful of cash and the letter was all I had to go on.
I admit to being a little unnerved by the situation at first. Random mail isn’t always a good thing in the newspaper business. We make enemies for life, and then some.. It was a strange-looking envelope with no point of origin I could recognize. I recall being a little leery about opening it. When I finally did, I got even more nervous. One thousand in cash is a lot of money in a small town newsroom. I found out later the envelope was out at our reception desk for a lengthy time before someone brought it to my office, where it sat even longer amid dozens of stray folders, papers and notebooks on a messy desk.
I remember being immediately anxious to get the money where the anonymous donor asked for it go. I wanted a strict timeline and accounting of the money, the amount and its successful delivery.
As is my custom, I wrote about this random act of kindness, asked this person to please call me Madison and thanked him profusely — never really expecting to hear from the mystery donor again.
And then I did.
And then I did again.
And then . .. . well, you get the point.
Over the next few years he called me Madison in his letters — never once a phone call or face-to-face meeting, just not his style — and helped a few dozen people in Alamance County who were harmed in accidents, by criminal acts, suffered medical problems, decimated by fires, or lost a loved one. He helped our newspaper colleague Mike Wilder when he was diagnosed with cancer. He gave to all the charities involved in the Times-News “Love Enough to Share” program one Christmas. Last year he bought $1,000 worth of tickets to give away for our cancer fund-raiser in Mike Wilder’s memory. The more than $50,000 entrusted to me to deliver always made it. I enlisted reporters who wrote the stories to help with this assignment. It was one of the few perks in an often thankless and underpaying job.
Just about a month from today I’ll come upon my one-year anniversary of leaving the newspaper business forever. I wrote a column at that time directly to the person I came to call “my Anonymous Friend.” I wanted him to know how much his generosity and my role in it meant to me. I also wanted to encourage him to continue helping people in my absence. I’m still willing to help, too. I give annually to Love Enough to Share in honor of “My Anonymous Friend.”
This person also meant a great deal to our community and those he touched. People still stop me and ask what happened to my Anonymous Friend. My family members asked the same last weekend at the funeral for my uncle, Alan Gordon, who was among the last people to receive help from this mystery person.
I stopped hearing from my Anonymous Friend in late summer, about the time I reached the decision to walk away from newspapers on my own rather than when corporate executives decided it was time to eliminate my salary. It’s been more than a year.
I asked my replacement as editor of the Times-News, Rich Jackson, if he had received anything at all from my Anonymous Friend. Rich said one day he got a telephone call from someone complaining about a story who identified himself as “Madison Taylor’s anonymous friend.” I’m certain the caller wasn’t legit. Oh, I’m sure he had a beef with the story, but there is no way the call was placed by my Anonymous Friend. I told Rich it had to be someone who was looking for a way to get under his skin. I have some suspects in that regard, one in particular, who would stoop so low.
Because the person who authored the letters I received and helped so many people wouldn’t consider such a crude complaint even if he disagreed with something the newspaper published. He would have fashioned some kind of lesson around his concern and written a well-crafted letter that would enlighten, not criticize.
And besides, telephone calls just aren’t his style.