“They never forgot that people helped them when they needed it. This is what we did.”
As the Letter Writer in Residence at the Living Letter Office (1) this term, I did not anticipate performing the role of a private scribe (2). While most of my postal practice during the residency consisted of discovering and sharing relevant information with new and established correspondents, it was not until I presented my work to the Art and Social Practice class that I encountered my first participant. A few weeks later, this person and I met via Zoom and they dictated a personal letter while I wrote it down, later typewriting it and mailing it to their recipient. Correspondence is a family trait, as my mother was a letter writer for the United States government in the late 1960’s. While her work was in the category of civic writing and mine in the personal, their intersection demystifies the perception that letter writing and reading are solitary activities.
Laura Glazer: Hi, Mom!
Rita Glazer: Hi! How are you?
Laura: I’m good! You’ve mentioned that early in your career, you worked as a professional letter writer. Do I have that right?
Rita: That’s correct.
Laura: What was the year that you started?
Rita: I started I believe, in 1967, which was the year I graduated from college. When I graduated, I went to Israel for eight weeks. And when I came back in late August, I think I went to work for the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), sometime in September or October of 1967. I can’t be more specific than that, because it was a long time ago. And I was there for I believe, three years. Again, I can’t really be 100% specific.
Laura: What did you study in college?
Rita: I have a bachelor’s degree in sociology. I’ve been trying very hard to remember how I got this job and I can’t. I must have applied for it through college. But I feel like I knew someone that mentioned it to me.
Laura: Where did you go to school?
Rita: George Washington University.
Laura: Were you excited to start work?
Rita: I was excited! I was working for the anti-poverty agency, which is what I wanted to do anyway. I have a feeling that I applied because I really wanted to work there.
Laura: I’ve never heard you say that. Can you say more about why you wanted to work there?
Rita: It hadn’t been around for very long and I liked what they were doing. I mean, they had all these anti-poverty programs. I thought that they were doing really good things. This is the era of Bobby Kennedy and Sargent Shriver, who was our director, and it was the whole Kennedy family thing which just enthralled me. I liked what they were doing, I liked what they stood for. I felt like they were doing something for this country and I wanted to be part of it.
Laura: Did it crossover with your academic studies?
Rita: Well, I had a degree in sociology, and writing letters, which is not what I had planned to do with my life, to be perfectly honest. But there was a certain element of being able to respond to people properly and understand what they were saying and understand what we could do. I’m not probably expressing that the right way. But I think it did enter into it. I think a lot of what I studied and did, especially my senior year, and I can’t remember what that was, all kind of fit together.
Laura: How did it work?
Rita: When the letters came in, they came through our office. They were logged in by the office secretary and the manager assigned the letters to us, the writers. She divided the letters up based on our experience with the subject matter and on the relationships we had developed with the subject matter staff.
One of my areas was Legal Services, which we all fought over, because they had nice young lawyers there! But it was a nice group. We were all idealistic young people that wanted to work for the anti-poverty agency. I guess that’s it: idealistic. Do you want me to go into what we did?
Rita: Say we got a letter from a constituent or we got a lot of letters from Congress who would either be writing us directly, or they would be forwarding an inquiry from one of their constituents. I’m trying to think of what they might ask. “I live in a very rural area in Kentucky and I need some legal assistance,” they’d written to a Congressman. “And I don’t know how to get it.” This person knew about Legal Services, but there wasn’t anything there [in Kentucky]. What could this person do? So the Congressman forwarded it to us, because Legal Services was part of the OEO.
I kind of knew some answers. But the best thing to do was to go to one of the lawyers in Legal Services, which we did. He’d read the letter, and we’d talk about it and he’d give me, “Well, given where she’s located, which is like 200 miles from the closest Legal Services place, we would need to get in touch with that Legal Services agency there and see if we can arrange for them to meet.” I’m kind of making this up but that’s the kind of thing that we did and it’s been a long time since I did it.
I would write the Congressman back, not the constituent, because the Congressman is the one who initiated it. There was a format that we had to follow when we wrote a Congressman, which was easy. So we’d write them back and say, “We have researched this, we have spoken with Joe Smith, in our Legal Services division, and his recommendation is thus, thus, and so. If you wish we can attempt to make contact with her or you can, it’s your call.” Beyond that we didn’t do much in the way of follow up, it wasn’t our responsibility to follow up, our responsibility was to get the information out.
We would get letters like that all the time: “We need help,” or, “How do you resolve this particular issue in terms of community service?” There used to be community action programs and I wish I could tell you what they were. But they were like the programs that you see in your city now, helping people find housing, things that people need to be able to do to live in a community and to have a community be responsive to their needs, too. We had Legal Services, we had Indian Affairs, which is who Dan worked for—the guy in my building that I went out with.
Laura: You could get letters from Congress people as well as directly from citizens?
Rita: That’s correct.
Laura: How would they have known to send it directly to you? I mean, citizens.
Rita: Well, the OEO did not exist in a vacuum; many people knew about it. They may have seen a Community Action Program set up in their community and gone in there and said, “I would like to do ‘X,’ how do I do that?”
Or perhaps, you came in and said, “I have this idea for setting up a Spanish language program in four counties in the state, with this local Community Action Program, which is in a small town.” I would say to this person, “We can help you once you can get something established. What you should do is write to the federal headquarters in D.C. and tell them what you want to do and it will work from there.” I guess I’m saying it was a collaborative effort on the part of the subject matter people (the lawyers and whoever was working in the various divisions), Congress, and the individual citizens.
I can’t say with certainty that 50% of the mail came from Congress versus 50% from individuals. But a lot of our work was congressionally-based. We always joked that we would love to meet some of them, which is something we never did.
Laura: The people who wrote to you?
Rita: No, the Congressman and their offices. We always felt like, we supported them, we helped them out and that the least they could do was meet us. But it was okay!
I wrote a lot of letters. And we used typewriters. We didn’t have anything else. If you made a mistake, you whited it out. Eventually we got the typewriters; I think we got Selectrics at some point.
We had a secretary in our office, Elena Halfmoon. She was a Nez Perce Native American. OEO had gone to her reservation and recruited several people from the reservation to come to Washington to work for OEO.
Elena was just the coolest person in the world. She was very unworldly and the unfortunate thing is she got caught up in things that were going on and she became an alcoholic; she was not an alcoholic when she arrived. People looked after her and they got it straightened out. But she did eventually leave and we heard, much to our sadness, about six months after she left, that she committed suicide.
In theory, it was a good program to bring people from the reservations to D.C., but it really wasn’t. But they learned a lot from Elena and a couple of other people who came from the reservations and they developed programs for them. They recruited them to work and they wanted them to work, particularly the Native Americans, they wanted them to work in the Native American programs and that was the goal. Elena was not going to stay with us forever.
I have not thought about Elena in a long time. She was just a lovely woman. She was very talented, too. She wasn’t a letter writer; she was our secretary. But she would read the letters when they came in, and she would come up with suggestions. Then when we drafted our responses, every once in a while, she’d say, “You know, I don’t think this is a good answer.” She was usually right.
Laura: Let me make sure I have the process correct. Who would receive the letter? Like, would Elena get the letter and then route it to the correct letter writer?
Rita: No. Elena logged them in and the manager did the routing.
Laura: What were the other areas that the other three letter writers did?
Rita: I had Legal Services. And they gave me the Native American program. I can’t remember the exact name but it dealt with Native American reservations. I’m not sure that Elena did the routing. We had a woman whose title was something like
“Congressional Liaison.” Her name was Robbie.
Laura: How old were you at the time?
Rita: I was 21, 22.
Laura: What were the other areas? Like you were Legal Services and sometimes Indian Affairs, but what were the other buckets? They don’t have to be exact. I’m just trying to get a sense of the topics that were addressed. Do you need to look at that ashtray?
Rita: You’re so smart. [Exits the room and returns holding the ashtray.]
Laura: Let me take a picture of that. You want to hold it up? Hold it a little bit higher.
Rita: It’s signed on the back, “With best wishes from Sargent Shriver 1968.” Community Action Programs, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Foster Grandparents. Migrant Opportunities, Indian Opportunities, Green Thumb, Legal Services, Job Corps. VISTA, which is Volunteers in Service to America, which was the domestic Peace Corps. Upward Bound and Health Right Programs, which I have no memory of. Head Start, which was the preschoolers and in the center, of course, is the OEO emblem.
Laura: Do you think you ever used it as an ashtray?
Rita: No, never. I would never have done that.
Laura: For all of those units that you just read, was there a letter writer for each of those?
Rita: Not exactly. It got to a point fairly quickly when it was very clear that some areas were of more interest to me than other areas and the same for the other letter writers. I think it was the sort of thing where you just kind of fell into certain specific areas but you weren’t limited to those.
Laura: How many letters were on your docket at one time?
Rita: I suppose we could have written 15 to 20 letters a day, maybe more? A lot of it was boilerplate. “Thank you for your inquiry about whatever, of whenever.” This is what we did, we wrote letters. So 15 or 20 letters a day is not bad. Sometimes we would draft them on the typewriter and they would be okay. Or sometimes we draft them and we make changes and give them to Elena and she would type them. Elena could type like 150 words a minute. Unbelievable how fast she could type. If we were really busy we’d draft out a letter on our typewriters and give them to Elena. If we wrote them at 10 o’clock in the morning and gave them to her at 10:30, they were done by noon.
Laura: Would you draft a letter on the typewriter or by hand?
Rita: Yes to both, I think. Sometimes you just pick up a pen and you write—that happens to you, too, I’m sure. I think it was more typed, just because it was easier, but I don’t know.
Laura: So you would draft a letter and then would you take it to a subject matter expert to review? Or was that only certain times?
Rita: Possibly. We may have gone before with the letter that came in if we didn’t think we had an answer or if we got the letter and said, “I’m thinking that this would work,” we’d draft it out. Then, depending on our level of confidence, we would go with it or if we had had similar inquiries, we were comfortable enough to write our own letters using previous letters as guides. As the months wore on, we would spend less and less time having to do actual research, we knew the answers.
Laura: That was going to be my next question: did you know the answers going into the job?
Rita: No. We learned, we would study, we would collaborate.
Laura: What was the name of your division?
Rita: Correspondence Control Unit. Very unromantic. We were part of the Executive Office of the Director. The director’s office was on the top floor, I think it was the tenth floor and that was Sargent Shriver. We were on the third or fourth floor. We had a nice big space. We each had our own desk and Elena was in the middle of it and there was somebody on the other side. Then there were two separate offices, one for Bill who was the boss, and then the other one, Robbie and Jan were in. And they all smoked. Of course, we did too, at that point. Everybody smoked so you didn’t notice it.
We were all very close, we worked together. Even the lawyers down the hall—to some extent we didn’t have anything in common with them—but we did: we’re all about the same age—they were a little older actually. But I go back to what I said earlier, we wanted to be there. Grandma said it best years and years and years ago, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” You get along with these people. Believe me it wasn’t hard, they were good people, they were fun people.
It sounds like there’s a lot of responsibility. But it wasn’t hard. I think it wasn’t hard, because it was interesting. Because I enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed the whole process of getting the letters, of trying to understand what it was that they were asking or talking about and talking to those who knew. I keep going back to lawyers because we had a lot of legal services questions. Being able to take what they said and make sense of it and write something back to somebody to whom it mattered. Every once in a while, we would get a letter thanking us from a Congressman, thanking us for helping out so and so, that we really did help them out and they appreciated it. We kept getting funded so we obviously we were doing something right.
Laura: Do you feel like you were really helping?
Rita: I think we all did. I think it was a time when that needed to be done. Not that it doesn’t need to be done now. But it was after Kennedy died and there was just so much going on. There was so much poverty and nobody was addressing it. LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson) came up with this Office of Economic Opportunity idea and ran with it. I was just on the inside, I didn’t physically do anything to help anybody because we were the headquarters. The headquarters people made the decisions that went out to the lawyers, the Legal Services offices, all these other offices, Indian Affairs and whatnot. It went out to those offices in the field and the country. The money went out there and helped people, made lives better. Eventually it went away.
Laura: Where did it go?
Rita: It got broken up after a while. There were people that didn’t believe in it at all. Some of these programs, like Head Start, in some form still exist, I think.
Laura: And so does VISTA, we know that.
Rita: So does VISTA.
Laura: When you say it got broken up with, which thing got broken up?
Rita: The Office of Economic Opportunity went away. And its programs were dispersed. Beyond that I couldn’t tell you, but we know for a fact that they still exist in some form or another. I don’t know if Head Start still exists as Head Start but it’s preschool; it laid the foundation for things to follow.
Laura: Here’s a question that’s brewing in my mind. How did you—who grew up as a white, middle class, Jewish girl in a family that had both parents and you had two older brothers and extended family nearby—have an awareness of what an anti-poverty program might be addressing? Because that’s not where you came from.
Rita: No, it isn’t where it came from but I came from a Jewish family. I came from a family whose parents and whose grandparents came from Russia and lived a very poor existence, were fortunate enough to find people to help them. Especially when they came to this country. One great uncle came here who came here first and left everybody behind. He managed somehow and somebody took care of him, I guess, through some Jewish social service agency, which was big in Europe. He did well enough that he was able to save enough money to start bringing his family here. But they never forgot how they became successful, they never forgot how they not just survived, but lived, when they came to this country. They never forgot that people helped them when they needed it. This is what we did.
Laura: When you were in this position did you have a visual sense of who you were helping? How did you envision the people you were receiving letters from?
Rita: Well, that’s an interesting question. I can tell you better by answering that we used to see people in the building. Constituents would come to the building. They weren’t coming to see us. They may have been called to come to the area by a Congressman.
Laura: Did you ever hear back from a citizen who contacted you directly?
Rita: Off the top of my head, I have to say no, I don’t think so.
Laura: Were there any requests for help directly from citizens that stand out in your memory?
Laura: Do you ever remember receiving a letter and being upset or sad?
Rita: Yes, I do. Every once in a while we would get a letter like that, where you just kind of put your head down on your desk. We got quite a few a week; we got more than we should have. But things were tough, we were just beginning to discover the levels of poverty in this country. Back in the mid 60s. That’s not to say we didn’t know it was there, but nobody did anything about it. And all of a sudden, people are realizing that we have people here who don’t have anything to eat. We have that now, too, for different reasons. But we had people that had no food. “Homeless” was not a word that you heard. But you did hear about people who didn’t have enough clothing to keep them warm and they didn’t have enough food—maybe food for one meal every couple of days and that was it. You didn’t hear much about that. But it existed. It still exists, even without all this, with COVID; there are a lot of people that don’t have enough food to eat.
Laura: Were the letters sent from all over the country?
Laura: Did you actually handle the original letter?
Laura: Were there lots of formats and handwriting? Were they handwritten or typed?
Rita: They were probably handwritten. I’m guessing that people did not have much access to typewriters. I honestly can’t remember.
Laura: That would make sense, though. I forget that during that time period, typewriters are very similar to computers in that they were expensive.
Rita: That’s right. Let’s face it, if it comes to a question of typewriter or shoes, I’m going to get the shoes.
Laura: You said that a lot of the letter was boilerplate. Do you recall a time when you included something very specific and possibly personal, like a personal response, in addition to the boilerplate?
Rita: We weren’t supposed to do that, it wasn’t appropriate. We did sign letters and I’m trying to remember who signed them. We must have gotten the lawyers to sign the letters, or the subject people to sign the letters. That would make the most sense. I wouldn’t have signed them.
Laura: It strikes me that you were a connector. You and I share that trait which I realize as I listen to you talk about letter writing. You were an intermediary between the constituent and the answer. Like connecting people to information that they need and don’t know how to find. Were you considered clerical?
Rita: No, we were not. We were considered professional.
Laura: Did you have to take a civil service exam?
Rita: No, not for this. I had done that before for some summer jobs. I applied for civil service, taking typing tests but not for this. This was considered professional.
Laura: Oh, before I forget—this will be the last question—on what occasion did you get this ashtray? And why were you given an ashtray?
Rita: You have to remember, this was 1968 and everybody smoked. That’s number one. At the time that these were being sent out they were not given to employees. I had a friend who worked in Sargent Shriver’s office. I went up there and they were in the process of wrapping these gifts which they were sending to Congressmen and people of influence. I said, “Can I have one?” “No, we can’t give these out.” I remember saying, “Who’s gonna know?”
Laura: Well, this has been awesome.
Rita: It was great to talk to you. This was the longest conversation you and I’ve had in a long time and who knows when we’ll do it again.
Laura: Okay, thanks, mom. This was awesome.
Rita: This was fun.
This interview was conducted over Zoom on Monday, November 30, 2020.
(1) An office and residency I created in the Art and Social Practice program’s classroom and studio space on the Portland State University’s campus
(2) Someone who writes (and sometimes reads) letters for someone else
Rita Glazer is a lifelong resident of the Washington, D.C. region. She worked in the defense contracting industry for over 25 years while raising her daughter and caring for her husband during his terminal illness. She is an active member of her synagogue, reads The Washington Post everyday, and dreams of sunny days in Hawaii.
Laura Glazer is a first-year student in the Art and Social Practice Masters of Fine Arts program at Portland State University. She graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography and lives in Portland, Oregon. An avid letter writer, she is a member of the Portland Correspondence Coop and creates artwork at the intersections of photography, design, publishing, and curation.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.
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