A child's drawing of Santa next to a tree.

Reporters of a certain place and time — Eugene, Oregon, in the 1970s — loved to tell stories about how they were hired. At the time, the Eugene Register-Guard was considered one of the finest small-city newspapers in the country. Journalists from much larger markets found their way there, and stayed. Others who were from Oregon and its smaller shops, found their way there and saw no big market where they could do work that mattered more, so stayed. A Pulitzer Prize winner ran the photo staff. Many on the reporting staff had started as part-timers while students at the University of Oregon, and worked in apprentice fashion for a few years before they were formally brought on board.

Among the stories, one was told again and again: When it came time to meet with a gruff assistant city editor named Dean Rea, he would sit you in an office, plop a typewriter in front of you, and oversee a typing test. It was timed. Errors counted against you. The typewriter, in many of the stories, was a manual, but you know how stories go.

Jyoti Madhusoodanan

Jyoti Madhusoodanan

In a parallel universe, Dean Rea (he was always called Dean Rea in the journalism world, never just Dean) taught at the University of Oregon. There, he would issue a copy editing test. Timed. Errors not only counted against you — enough of them could end your forward progress in the program.

When I was hired by the Register-Guard in 1978, I wasn’t given a typing test. If I had been, I would have done fine; I love the keyboard. Copy editing? That would have been a bit of a push. But I worked for and with Dean Rea for the next three years, and learned that his drill sergeant approach to hiring, promoting, editing and teaching was really a passion for the profession, and an awareness that sloppiness undermined our professionalism, and thus our credibility as public servants and seekers of the truth.

And the reputation for being gruff? Well earned, but a small part of his story. Dean Rea was as devoted to his staff and students as he was to his open-minded Christian faith as he was to his many children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren as he was to his wife of some 70 years. (Yes, I said 70 years, which are only eclipsed by those he worked as a journalist; he began that back in junior high school, in Missouri, where he learned letterpress printing — a skill he turned into a hobby after his multiple retirements (few of which stuck). He has published four small but charming books, churned out his own little letterpress chapbook for a few years, worked in the Oregon rain as a photographer at high school football games and, at the urging of a great-grandchild, started his own blog: There have been very few Fridays in recent years when Dean’s Musings hasn’t popped up in my inbox.

Lou Rea died last year. After she did, Dean Rea moved out of the assisted care home they had resigned themselves to when Lou needed more help than he could provide on his own, and into his own apartment in a senior complex in downtown Eugene — where he continues to write, and occasionally muses about volunteering to help out at a weekly newspaper somewhere in the region.

And so it happened that on the first day of the year of our Lord 2020, a special edition of Dean’s Musings appeared. It was Dean Rea’s take on what, in many hands, could be little more than a moment of cuteness: a collection of children’s letters to Santa, these published in a newspaper out of Newport, Oregon. It is straightforward, short and stripped of false emotion.

It also brought me near to tears. In a few grafs, Dean Rea captures the timeless wonder, curiosity and generosity of childhood. But the few specific letters he chose, out of some 130, tease out the heartbreaking realities of poverty and family crisis too many children endure.

A friend I met while working at the Register-Guard those many years ago said, on the recent occasion of his 70th birthday: “I want to be Dean Rea when I grow up.”

I want to keep being reminded of the power contained in seeing the world with a sharp eye and open heart, and telling a big story in a few well-chosen words. We reprint Dean Rea’s blog post with his permission.

Students wanna know about elves, reindeer

How many elves work in Santa’s workshop and how do his reindeer fly were among the most frequent questions mentioned in letters written by 130 Oregon coastal second grade students this past Christmas.

Artwork by 40 fourth graders illustrated the advertisements that accompanied the letters in a newspaper published in Newport.

Spelling was not corrected by News-Times personnel, including the following:

I wunt a new bike.

Am I on the noty list or nis list

I got my mom a prezint.

Many students concentrated on establishing a “good conduct” record for the past year. Several estimated they had been 90 percent nice. A few split an even 50 percent. Another student, however, appeared to have a more realistic view of life, writing: “It’s hard to be nice.”

Students wanted a variety of gifts, including puppies, fish, unicorns, bikes, horses, dolls, sports gear and a real Caterpillar, the kind that tosses logs around and works construction.

“I want a pet bird because I like animals. my othe reason that they are cool and they are my favorite animals and will take care of him myself every two days….”

A couple of letters sought gifts that many of us enjoy year round. A second grade girl wrote: “I want a house because me and my mom want some privacy.” Another student wrote: “I wish I can live with you (Santa). Next wish I want to stay with my mom and dad.”

Several students posed personal questions of Santa: How old are you? How many elves work in the shop? How are you treating Mrs. Claus? How do you fit through a chimney with a big tummy? What is your favorite cookie? And what do you want for Christmas, Santa?

One of my favorite letters may best reflect the spirit of the season:

“My clas has been viery good including myself. We shuld not be on the noty list. Becus we work hard. I belev in you (Santa) bcause wen I wak up on crismis morning theirs pesents that wernt ter before.”

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