Dear Editor: an island portrait

t Review readers have written their own island history.

A pastiche of letters forms a portrait of an island, large events and small.

Excerpts from 50 years of letters to the editor of the Bainbridge Review reveal more than islanders’ opinions – they reflect decades of demographic change, chronicle issues that resurface with each generation, and sometimes show a small community overtaken by big events.

“If you live here for any time, you pick up a lot of history by absorption,” said Steve Stolee, who will direct Island Theater actors in “Dear Editor,” an original dramatic reading March 13. “But the letters give a face to the history.”

The hour-long presentation for the BIAHC Humanities Inquiry is based on 120 letters culled from the Review archives from 1928 through the mid-1970s, a period that saw the newspaper launched in 1923 by H.W. and Frances Niemeyer change hands twice – purchased by Millie and Walt Woodward in 1940 and by Dave and Verda Averill in 1962.

The archival letters provide insights into island happenings and islanders’ response to world events, says BIAHC program coordinator Kathleen Thorne, who with several volunteers did the research.

Stolee adapted the letters into a script that follows several thematic threads at once, rather than hewing to a strictly chronological presentation.

Letters that respond directly to editorials speak to positions taken by the paper over the years; some of them, like Woodward’s support of islanders of Japanese American heritage during World War II, have been vindicated by history.

The immediacy of the letters, which strip events of the perspective of hindsight, offers other perspectives:

“The President of the United States has seen fit to give the high command of our Army permission to use their best judgement to protect the Pacific Coast from sabotage and/or fifth column activities” writes one islander. “Under these circumstances, I fail to see that it is within the province of the Bainbridge Review to question either the evacuation, or the time element involved.

“Please cancel my subscription...”

The return of the interned islanders was also a subject of debate.

“The subject of the Japanese American internment is a well-known and historical fact of Bainbridge Island history,” Stolee said, “but those letters – vehemently against and those in favor – gave those events a real face in a very visceral and heart-rending way.

“Without marginalizing everything else, that particular thing, that exclusion, is the beating heart, the central historical element of this place.”

But there have been other brave editorial opinions offered over the years, mirrored in letters. One writer criticizes Woodward’s questioning of Sen. Joe McCarthy in denouncing alleged “Communist sympathizers” in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Another tackles Averill’s coverage and editorializing about the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon:

“...We have been very unhappy at your, to us, very slanted editorials and items about President Nixon. Like the Washington Post, it seems you print nothing good about his efforts as President...” wrote Dorothy Guy in April 1974, just a few months before Nixon’s resignation.

While the world’s great events lapped at the shores of Bainbridge at times, more letters speak to doings closer to home.

Some may seem quaint to today’s islanders, like a 1954 letter excoriating the harmful influence of comic books.

But many letter-writers tackle issues contemporary islanders may recognize as perennial:

“Young people like to go out and enjoy themselves and in order to enjoy themselves they must have some place where they can go and have fun.....what we need is a good skating rink and a well kept-up dance pavilion....” wrote a Bainbridge teen in 1947.

Occasional mean-spiritedness surfaces among disgruntled writers, like the sentiments penned in a 1940 letter describing the seasonal strawberry pickers as an “Indian horde... (of) young buck Indians insulting white girls,” and a 1968 writer who suggested “Christians, give your kids a good beating, it won’t kill them...”

But readers on the whole seem more inclined to the whimsical rant of a 1976 letter that, after inveighing against renumbering of rural houses, closes with a request: “Now please get me back to my coffin before sunrise.”

The archived letters, like contemporary letters to the editor, are perhaps the most direct and vivid cross-section of island life available.

“It’s no wonder that first thing I turn to in the paper is letters to the editor,” Thorne said. “I think a lot of readers do, too.”

* * * * *

The readers speak

Island Theater presents “Dear Editor: A Playreading of Letters to the Bainbridge Review,” 7:30 p.m. March 13 at Island Center Hall.

Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and students.

The program is the fourth in the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council’s 2004 Humanities Inquiry, Breaking News: The State of Today’s Information Media. See for a complete schedule.

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