This is a true story but the names have been changed to protect the benevolent.
The missive ended up on my desk at the Better Government Association's Chicago office with the rest of the daily mail, and the halting quality of the lettering on the envelope suggested a slightly diminished fine motor coordination that often bedevils seniors.
So my first thought was a complaint from an irate oldster about a perceived failure of government. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a check inside that implied the sender was supporting our anti-corruption watchdog activities.
And that, the sender wrote, was indeed the case. She explained her husband heard me on the radio discussing our mission and methods in the fight against waste, fraud, corruption and inefficiency, and he apparently liked the message. He also appreciated my years as the ABC 7 political reporter, so he asked the Mrs. to send me a check.
Which she did, and at first glance I assumed it was another $50 donation. Great, I thought—another 999 of those and we'll hire a new investigator.
But as I examined the numbers more closely a few more zeroes appeared, and the line with the written amount jolted me like an electric shock: $50,000. From people I'd never met.
Some of our BGA staffers thought it was a prank perpetrated by kooks, but our investigators quickly determined that (a) the check was real and (b) our new angels were a wealthy and interesting elderly couple from a rural town 50 miles from Chicago.
So I called to say thank you, and the husband explained that he, like so many other Illinois residents, was fed up with public officials who run government wastefully, inefficiently and dishonestly, treating our tax dollars like it's their money. He liked my explanation of a BGA that "shines a light on government and holds public officials accountable," so he decided to step up in a big way and support the effort to make better government a reality.
He and the Mrs. accepted my offer to drive out and say thank you in person, which I did at the end of the summer. And after I heard their life stories, and thought about their unique contributions to their community and Illinois in general, I decided to write about them.
But they didn't want me to use their names, because that could subject them to a long line of solicitors, so I'll call them Bill and Melinda.
They're 88-year-old liberal Democrats who live in a predominantly Republican collar county. Bill started an electronics firm after World War II that's grown into a successful family-run worldwide manufacturer of specialty coils. Bill recalls that 40 years ago he hired (Illinois Governor) Pat Quinn as an aide after Quinn left a government job. "His resume says ‘marketing consultant,'" Bill recalls with a smile, "but he was mostly a gofer." Quinn resigned a year later to attend law school, and the rest is history.
Melinda, who describes herself as a "bleeding heart liberal," teamed up with a younger friend a few years ago to launch a website dedicated to the proposition that rich people should pay higher taxes, and that's generated a lot of buzz in political circles.
She also wrote an article in a woman's magazine half a century ago suggesting the concept of year-round schooling for young students, which was finally embraced by the reform movement decades later. Chicago now has more than 200 year-round schools, so Melinda was clearly a visionary.
She and Bill live in a country home that's modest with one spectacular exception—an art collection of portraits of famous historical figures, including artists, scientists, musicians, politicians and inventers.
Many are on loan to galleries, and several hundred decorate the library at a nearby community college. Freud, Michelangelo, Galileo, Van Gogh, Roosevelt, Sitting Bull and Babe Ruth, to name a few. They're awesome.
Bill and Melinda are also characters who've lived long, relatively healthy lives, but still chain-smoke cigarettes. When I ask why, Bill simply says, "We've lived this long, so why stop now?" They even have matching ashtrays and lighters on the dining room table.
Bill tells me at the end of my visit that he was originally planning to send a check for $100,000, but when he heard that another wealthy donor had agreed to match every contribution, he decided that fifty was enough because I'd end up with the hundred anyway.
"You mean I left fifty on the table?" I ask incredulously. "I'm afraid so," Bill answered mischievously. But the optimist in me says I'll eventually get it. And I actually feel fortunate to have received anything, because the radio show Bill heard me on was hosted by an ultra-conservative who embraces the Tea Party.
I didn't ask Bill why he was listening to that station, but luckily he was. Because that "senior moment" will pay for two more investigators. And now I look for a similar letter in every day's mail. The scragglier the handwriting, the better.