Class of 1964
Local history: Kenmore girl’s unusual 1966 Santa letter led to lifelong friendship with Vietnam
veteran

By Mark J. Price
Beacon Journal staff writer

Published: December 18, 2016 - 08:47 PM | Updated: December 20, 2016 - 09:01 AM


Although it has been 50 years, retired Akron teacher Judy Williamson Mervine recalls assigning a
letter for second-graders to write in December 1966 at Lawndale Elementary in Kenmore.
She told the pupils to let Santa Claus know what they wanted for Christmas. Checking their
work, the second-year instructor saw that most of the kids had scrawled standard requests for
toys.
Then she read a letter from a 7-year-old girl that absolutely floored her:
“Dear Santa Claus: Please stop the war in Vietnam and give all of my toys to the people there so
they will have a good Christmas and if I don’t get any toys I won’t care because Christmas is
when the baby Jesus was born in the manger and we have gifts to celebrate Christmas. Your
friend, Kimberly Ann Stover”
The poignant, altruistic note warmed Mervine’s heart. In 35 years of teaching, she never again
saw anything like it.
“Everybody else was writing ‘I want a doll,’ ‘I want a bike’ or whatever fad thing they were
trying to sell to these kids,” Mervine recalled. “And she just came up with this thing all on her
own. I was totally shocked.”
Mervine said Kim “was a truly amazing little girl,” and she’s maintained contact with her for 50
years.
Kim, the daughter of Ruth and Doug Stover, thought she was in trouble when she was called to
the school office, but found Beacon Journal reporter Eddi Parker waiting to interview her.
Mervine had told the paper about the letter, which was published Dec. 22, the day after Kim’s
eighth birthday.
In the article, the girl said she believed in Santa, but she wasn’t sure he could fulfill her request.
“After all, Vietnam is a long way off and Santa might not get there because his reindeer might
get tired,” she said.
In conclusion, Parker wrote: “P.S. Santa Claus: If, by any chance, there’s anything left over
after you’ve delivered those toys in Vietnam, Kimberly would like a baby doll.”
Gift from distant land
A mysterious package arrived Jan. 11, 1967, at the Stover home on Carey Avenue. With the
help of her mother, Kim opened the box and found a tall, beautiful Vietnamese doll.
“She wore a long silk turquoise dress with slits up either side revealing white silk slacks
underneath, and on her head she wore a white conical hat, which was tied under her chin,”
recalled Kim Stover, who will turn 58 on Wednesday.
Accompanying the gift was a letter that Stover describes as “the most amazing thing that had
ever happened to me.”
“Dear Kimberly Ann: You don’t know me, but I know you from a clipping my parents sent me. I
want to thank you for the wish you asked Santa Claus for. I am here in Vietnam, and I would
like Santa Claus to stop the war over here so I could be home with my family. … I hope you had
a merry Christmas. Your friend, P.F.C. Jim Ripley.”
A 1964 Hower High School graduate, Ripley, 21, the son of Robert and Anita Ripley, was
spending his first Christmas away from home after being drafted in the U.S. Army. He was
stationed near Saigon and worked as a heavy vehicle driver in Company B of the 69th
Engineering Battalion.
In a thank-you note, the Kenmore girl replied: “Dear P.F.C. Jim: Thank you for the doll. I like the
doll very, very much. And I like you as much as the doll. You are a very nice man. My letter to
Santa Claus about stopping the war didn’t do any good. And thank you for the picture. When you
get out of the war, please come and see me. Your friend, Kimberly Ann Stover.”
Ripley was transferred to the Mekong Delta to build base camps for troops and was exposed to
the defoliant Agent Orange. After 13 months of deployment, Ripley was honorably discharged.
Meeting ‘gentle spirit’
Stover recalls a tall stranger — the soldier who had sent the doll — visiting her family. He had a
“gentle spirit, kind smile and easy demeanor” as they met, beginning a lifelong friendship.
The Stovers moved that summer to Hagers¬town, Md., where Ripley and his fiancée, Linda,
stopped to visit on vacation. The family eventually settled in Tennessee. Kim majored in creative
writing at the University of Tennessee, where she received surprise visitors at her 1981
graduation.
Jim and Linda Ripley and their kids Sally, Jimmy and Melanie were vacationing at a cabin in
Tennessee when they made a side trip to the university. They managed to find Stover among
hundreds of graduates.
“Jim tried to pass a note to me from the stands, but I never got it,” Stover recalled. “However,
when I was walking to the stage to receive my diploma, a man stepped out from the stands and
asked if I were Kim Stover. I said yes, and he said ‘I’m Jim Ripley.’ I couldn’t believe it!”
Stover received a master’s degree in education at Tennessee and taught high school English for
32 years in Columbus, Ind., before retiring in 2015.
“No matter what I do with the rest of my life, I’m glad to have had the chance to pass on my
passion for writing and literature to my students,” she said.
Every Dec. 21, Ripley called Stover to wish her a happy birthday.
War takes a toll
Vietnam took a toll on his health. He had post-traumatic stress disorder from combat. Because of
exposure to Agent Orange, he lost pigmentation of his skin and developed a heart condition.
In 2009, he was diagnosed with mild dementia, suffering memory loss and confused thinking. The
condition worsened, making communication difficult, but he hasn’t forgotten his friend Kim.
“When it’s around Christmastime and I’m decorating, he knows it’s getting close to her
birthday,” Linda Ripley said. “He doesn’t use the phone anymore, so he will bug me and bug me
until I call her.”
Last summer, Stover visited the Ripleys in Canal Fulton, and brought a friend: her doll. Jim
Ripley was so happy.
“He never mentioned her name, but he knew the minute she walked in the door who she was,”
Linda Ripley said. “Just to see them hug and communicate with each other, it just brought tears
to your eyes.”
They visited the Ohio Veterans’ Memorial Park in Clinton, and Ripley and Stover sat on a bench
and enjoyed a quiet chat. In the fall, Linda Ripley led a drive to honor Jim’s service with a
special tile in the park’s Family of Heroes Memorial Hall.
It was an emotional day as the family unveiled the black granite tribute that features Army
photos of Ripley, who is now 71. He and his wife have visited the park several times.
“Half a century later, our shared wish for an end to armed conflict still resonates,” Stover said.
“And my Vietnamese doll still stands on my desk, a testament to a young soldier’s big heart and a
young girl’s belief in Santa Claus and in goodness itself.”