The yellowed envelope, postmarked December 1949 in Charlottesville, was addressed simply:
To Mr. Santa Claus
As soon as she discovered it deep in a collection of stamps and other items acquired a couple of years ago for her rare coins and collectibles shop, Tara Sims was immediately enamored by the envelope and the enclosed letter, written in the earnest cursive of a child, asking Santa for, among other things, a green cowgirl hat, a book and a physician’s set so she could “doctor” on the “ballet doll” she asked for in careful detail elsewhere in the letter. The child apparently had noticed the doll on a visit to the Miller & Rhoads department store and figured Santa probably had, too.
“I am sure you have seen it,” she wrote.
At the end of the letter, the writer, apparently not wanting to appear greedy, made a point of letting Santa know she “will not keep all that I got last Xmas. I will help the poor.”
It closed: “Love, Ormonde Deane.”
Sims and her husband, Tripp, who operate Yesterday’s Change in Tuckahoe Shopping Center on North Ridge Road in western Henrico County, see a lot of interesting things come through the door, “but never anything quite that adorable,” she said.
She did an online search for “Ormonde Deane,” but came up with only a few long-ago references and no real hint of where Ormonde might be today, if she was still anywhere. Wanting to share the joy of a 70-year-old Christmas letter from a child, Sims went out and found a green cowgirl hat and a vintage doll and created a holiday display in the store’s window with the letter, resting on a classic old wooden sled, as a centerpiece. Customers brought in old Miller & Rhoads boxes for further authenticity.
“I think it’s just nice for people to walk by and get a little feeling” of the season, Sims said.
Not long ago, a woman came into the store and asked to see the letter so she could take a good look at the signature.
“I know her,” the woman said, though she didn’t know how to get in touch with Ormonde.
Long story short, Ormonde Deane Wilkinson, now 78, and her husband, Gary, lived in River Road Hills — the same neighborhood where Tara and Tripp Sims live — until they moved into an assisted-living facility earlier this year. The Wilkinsons’ next-door neighbors, Ron and Stephanie Evans, were longtime friends and real estate agents who helped the Wilkinsons sell their home. Tara Sims also is friends with Stephanie Evans.
The world can seem a very small place once all the dots are connected.
The Evanses had become friends with Ormonde’s sister, Lyn Deane-Harris, who lives in Charlottesville, and they alerted her about the letter.
“It’s been amazing to me [the letter] even survived,” Deane-Harris told me in a phone interview. “I’m astounded.”
The Wilkinsons have experienced health issues in recent years, which precipitated their move into the assisted-living facility, said Deane-Harris.
Sims happily gave the letter and the items she had bought for the window display to Stephanie Evans, who made arrangements to give them to Deane-Harris, so she could deliver them to Ormonde on Christmas Day. Deane-Harris thought her sister would love to see the old letter. She was right.
“It was great, it was really fun,” Deane-Harris said Thursday. “I took her through the whole story. She didn’t remember writing the letter, but she certainly did remember writing letters to Santa Claus. She was charmed.”
There are three Deane sisters: Susan, the oldest; Ormonde; and Lyn, the youngest, who was born in 1949, the year 8-year-old Ormonde wrote the letter that surfaced in Sims’ shop. The girls grew up in Charlottesville.
Ormonde is a family name. Their paternal grandfather was Hubert Ormond Deane. Her parents added an “e” to feminize it.
Though they lived in Charlottesville, the Deanes came to Richmond regularly to shop at the downtown department stores, Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, as did many people in those years who lived in areas within a couple of hours’ drive of Richmond.
It also was a family tradition as the girls grew up to visit Santa at Miller & Rhoads and to write letters to Santa every year, said Deane-Harris.
Ormonde graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in sociology, then went to Penn State University, where she earned a graduate degree in recreational therapy and where she met Gary. They lived for a time in Pennsylvania, where Ormonde worked in a retirement home. The couple, who have no children, moved back to Virginia, landing in Richmond, where Gary was hired by Reynolds Metals and Ormonde took a job at Westminster Canterbury, where she worked for more than 20 years and was director of volunteers.
Deane-Harris and her husband, Bob, came to Richmond on Wednesday to have Christmas dinner with Ormonde and Gary and to deliver the surprise presents. She immediately recognized her signature on the letter.
“Ormonde was real tickled about the whole thing ... very happy and delighted,” said Deane-Harris.
No one has been able to figure out the path the letter took to reach this point. With its postmark, the envelope has the appearance of something that was actually delivered somewhere. But maybe not.
Deane-Harris said her grandfather, for whom Ormonde is named, was a longtime, well-known letter carrier for the postal service in Charlottesville (who was said in one published retrospective to have walked an estimated 50,000 miles on his twice-a-day route). He was retired by 1949, but he could have arranged for the postmark and then returned it to the family for safekeeping.
Or perhaps their mother went to the post office and had a postmark stamped on it without mailing it. Or maybe neither of the above.
Gary Wilkinson was a stamp collector at one time, but he doesn’t have a recollection of the letter being within his collection, which he divested himself of some time ago.
At any rate, Ormonde’s letter seems to have taken a meandering route before finding its way back to her.
“Who knows?” Deane-Harris said with a laugh. “Only Santa knows.”