COLUMN: The perfect gift – Thanks Harper Lee!


I just finished my annual reading of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Wow. As long as I live, I will read this novel. And for me, there’s a bonus.  Every time I pick up the book, I’m reminded of a special graduation gift I gave to someone.

Let’s face the facts – since the gift card came along it’s made true gift giving a dying art. Yes, I’ve used them – but reluctantly because I think they  reduce gift giving to a thoughtless ritual.  I’ve even talked about when I perform saying, “If someone gives you a gift card, what they’re really saying is, “I feel obligated to buy you something, but I don’t care enough about you to look for anything.”  

A thoughtful gift is a beautiful thing.  For example, one Christmas I surprised my siblings with framed pictures of the dog we had as kids. It brought them to tears. I gave my wife her engagement ring by steaming open a box of Cracker Jacks and putting it in the surprise toy package. Once I had my friend Jay Leno send a buddy a personal birthday greeting. There’s true joy when you give someone a great gift.

This leads to a problem. What was I going to do about Christie?  She’s a sweet girl I’ve known since she wore diapers. So, when I received her college graduation notice a few years ago, I wanted to put some thought into her gift. Sure, I could’ve given her cash that she would burn through on a beach trip; instead, I wanted her to have a special keepsake. 

Unfortunately, nothing came to mind as I sat in my home office. The wheel was spinning, but the hamster was dead.  After a while, I got up from my desk totally frustrated. That’s when I saw the answer to my problem staring at me from the bookshelf.  It was my copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Of course!  Christie was a fan of Mockingbird, so why not get her an autographed book?  Once I went to Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, and picked one up with no problem at all. I knew she kept some of her friends supplied with autographed copies to sell at their local businesses. I actually bought mine from a video rental store.  Ol’ Nell and I were practically best buddies. All I had to do is get down there and I would buy the perfect present.

But things had changed since I copped my copy.  I discovered that Harper Lee had stopped signing books!  What now? Those gift cards were starting to look pretty good.

So, I reached out to a business associate with relatives in the area, and asked him to make a few calls. Soon he gave me the bad news.  Harper Lee, now in declining health, was residing in an assisted living facility just outside of Monroeville. Furthermore, she was using an assumed name, and was taking no correspondence. Ugh. Looks like my quest was over.

But I remembered John Belushi in “Animal House” when he said, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?  “Nooo!” So, I pressed on. If I failed, then I would give Christie some cash, the book and the letter I wrote to Ms. Lee about her. Not a bad consolation prize.

Composing the letter was intimidating. I did at least three rewrites, and made a jillion changes.  That’s because I believed that writing to Harper Lee was like writing to Mark Twain. The content and the grammar had to be perfect. I’d hate to think that my request for an autographed book was shot down because I improperly used a semicolon.

I was happy with the end result, especially the first paragraph. I tried to touch every hot button that she might have: the South, the University of Alabama and her father. Here’s part of what I wrote:

Dear Ms. Lee,

My name is Joe Hobby. I am a proud Southerner, a graduate of the University of Alabama and a big fan of your book. I want you to know that composing this letter has been difficult for me. After much thought, I have decided to follow my father’s advice when asking for a favor: be polite and to the point. Enclosed is a copy of your work. I would respectfully ask that if it pleases you, would you autograph it and return it to me?

I continued with the reasons for my request. Then I signed it neatly, put the contents in an envelope and sent it to the assisted living center using Harper Lee’s name. It was done.  I’m not sure she would respond, but I was sure I did all I could do.

Two weeks later, I was in Kansas City taking an afternoon walk when my phone rang.  It was my wife.

“The book’s back!”

My heart began beating faster than a sprinter waiting on the starter’s gun.

“What do you want me to do with it?” she asked excitedly. 

This was an unusual question.  Normally my wife would have already filleted the envelope, spilled its contents on a table and called 37 of her friends to tell them what was inside.  Then it would be posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  It’s possible that she may have even sent out smoke signals. Finally, she’d get around to calling me.  However, this time I made her take a blood oath not to open the package if it arrived while I was out of town.

Besides, I couldn’t stand it either.

I said, “Go ahead, open it.”

There was a short pause, followed by a shriek. “She signed it!“  Then she gasped and added, “It’s personalized to Christie!”

To me, this was a bases loaded, walk off homer in Yankee Stadium.  I pumped my fist in the air and yelled, “Yes!”, terrorizing two nearby joggers.  I didn’t care. I had completed the quest.

Upon returning home, I immediately compared the signatures in both books. They matched. Then it was time to set up lunch with Christie. I couldn’t wait to give this gift.

We met a few days later. Somehow, I overcame the urge to give her the present the moment I saw her.  We ate and chatted first. Then I handed her a spiffy bag with the book inside.  Pleased, she thanked me and began to put it aside. 

I spoke up. “Take a look in the back.  There’s something you’ll want to see.” She opened the back cover and picked out the neatly folded piece of paper.  Quietly, she began reading my letter to Harper Lee.  Looking up she slowly asked, “What does this mean?”

I said, “Why don’t you look inside the front cover?”

She flipped open the book and turned a couple of pages. I felt like a 16-year-old about to get a good-night kiss from the homecoming queen.

Her eyes met the signature.  Then…silence.  Finally, she looked up, and said in disbelief, “How did you manage to do this?” 

That question was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. I told her the entire story, then I got the best hug I’ve ever had. 

There was one final thing to do. I sent Harper Lee a handwritten thank-you note. I held out a silly notion that she would respond and we would become pen pals. Didn’t happen. But that’s OK.  I’m forever grateful because her kind gesture gave two people a gift they will both remember for a lifetime.  

Or, maybe it had something to do with the Wal-Mart gift card I enclosed.

Joe Hobby is a comedian from Alabama who wrote for Jay Leno for many years. Find more of Joe’s stories on his blog: Follow him on Facebook at Joe Hobby Comedian- Writer.