My wife and I live on a beautiful little side street called Farragut Terrace. Narrow and tree lined, it is tucked just north of Spruce between 46th and 47th. It's a street of row houses, much like most of the others in West Philadelphia. While less than 18 feet wide each, Farragut's homes are large, spanning five floors from basement to attic. It was the attic that made our house famous. During the early part of this century, a woman named Ruth Plumly Thompson sat way up there, looking out a small window. In her mind, she saw not the street below, but the magical land of Oz. In 1920, Thompson had been approached by William Lee, vice-president of the Chicago publishing firm of Reilly & Lee. One of the company's most successful writers, L. Frank Baum, had died the year before after writing 14 best-selling volumes in his Wizard of Oz saga. The publisher, having made quite a bundle from the sales of these books, was not at all pleased by Baum's demise. Lee had known of Ruth for some time. He had seen many of the children's stories the young woman had been writing for the then-popular newspaper, The Philadelphia Ledger. A graduate of William Penn High School, Ruth was the daughter of George Thompson, night editor of The New York Times. George died of heart failure in 1895, when Ruth was only 4. His death left the family destitute. But the writing genes apparently had been passed from father to daughter. In her teen years she started submitting children's stories to the Ledger, which ultimately named her editor of its children's page. Chicago publisher Lee convinced Thompson she was the perfect choice to continue the tradition Baum had begun. She started writing and didn't stop until 19 additional Oz books had been added to the series -- five more than originator Baum had written. First came Kabumko in Oz, published in 1922. Her series ended 17 years later with Ozoplaning with the Wizard of Oz. Many fans say that Thompson came closer to the original Baum style of writing than the handful of other writers who subsequently tried recreating Oz. When I moved into the Farragut Street house, my then-new wife had already lived there for six years. She was the one who told me about Ruth Plumly Thompson and her connection to the house. But there was more. My wife showed me a box that contained all the fan mail that had come to the house over the years. The letters mostly were from children, kids who had found old copies of the Thompson books -- perhaps in their grandparents' attics. They all had read one or more of the dusty volumes and had noticed, in the preface to each, a lovely message from the author to her young audience. Here, for example, are a few lines from the note in Thompson's 1934 The Wishing Horse of Oz: "Your letters all year have been grand and if I had the magic necklace mentioned in this story I would wish you three hundred and sixty-five days of happiness. "So, happy year to you, dears. And next year? Ah, well, who knows what will happen next year? Another Oz book maybe, if you still want one. Write me if you do, and best of everything to you all, always." She signed each note RUTH PLUMLY THOMPSON and included -- so the readers could write to her -- her address. Our address! Can you imagine an author printing his or her real address in a book today? I looked at the box of letters. It was filled with darling bits of fan mail sent to our address by young readers who didn't know Ruth had died in 1976. Some of the letters included suggestions for future Oz characters and adventures. One was shipped with a tiny box in which we found a toy pearl necklace, likely in answer to Thompson's wish for a magical necklace. I joked to my wife back then that in 1966 the University of Pennsylvania had given me a certificate confirming that I had a brain, just like the diploma the Scarecrow received in Baum's first Oz book. I had no idea that seven years later I would move on to another step in the Oz saga. On the night of June 27, 1997, I was in our house -- Ruth's house -- when I started feeling chest pains. Indigestion? No. Added to the pain were shortness of breath and other symptoms that convinced me I was having a heart attack. A call to 911 brought an ambulance that rushed me to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, 12 blocks away. What the doctors in the emergency room found was a 52-year-old patient with a critically failing heart. Somehow, the crack medical staff at the hospital kept me alive for nine weeks. Then, on the night of September 9, I found myself on an operating table at HUP. I knew what was about to happen. To say it as succinctly as possible: a cardiac team would anesthetize me, saw open my rib cage, cut out my failing heart and replace it with a strong, much younger one. Yes, a heart transplant. I woke up early on the morning of Sept. 10, 1997, with a new heart, compliments of an unknowing donor and the University of Pennsylvania transplant team. So, in 1966, Penn had given me a brain. 31 years later, just as the Wizard granted to the Tin Woodman, Penn gave me a heart. I am not anticipating the event that might occur to prove I have Lion-like courage, but if it arrives I hope -- in the spirit of L. Frank Baum and his successor, Ruth Plumly Thompson -- that I'll be equal to the task. As Thompson wrote in that preface, "Who knows what will happen next year?"Comments powered by Disqus
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