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OPINION | DANA KELLEY: Most reprinted editorial

by Dana Kelley | December 9, 2022 at 3:05 a.m.


Unsigned editorials, as seen on the opposite page, represent the voice of the newspaper in matters of opinion. Typically a paper has a team of writers who collaborate and contribute its official editorials.

But because the editorial opinion is that of the paper, and not any individual writer, its authors are not typically named.

It's also not unusual for a reporter to switch from writing news stories to writing editorials. This was the case with a particular journalist named Frank back in the 19th century in New York.

Frank was a preacher's kid from Rochester, and his overachieving father was also a medical doctor and a writer in addition to leading a Baptist congregation. Frank's older brother Bill had joined his father in the newspaper publishing industry, and launched an overachieving career of his own. Bill would go on to serve as a U.S. Volunteer in the Civil War, co-found both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Rifle Association, and write a biography of Ulysses S. Grant.

Although Frank initially went to college to study law and divinity, he switched majors to journalism and joined the family business after graduation.

During the Civil War, Frank served as a war correspondent for The New York Times and also helped establish The Army and Navy Journal, which he edited and co-published. He and his brother also started a literary magazine called the Galaxy, which featured a regular column from Mark Twain.

The Galaxy originally competed, and ultimately merged, with The Atlantic Monthly. Following the dissolution of the Galaxy in 1878, 45-year-old Frank joined The Sun newspaper in New York City full time as an editor and writer.

For the next 28 years, he penned thousands of editorials for The Sun without benefit of a byline. He wrote with an intellectual approach and a sardonic tone. His managing editor described Frank's style as "sometimes gentle, sometimes sly, occasionally even mordant, but with a bite that never deposited venom" which was "employed on a wide range of subjects."

While Frank disliked politics, he was attuned to matters of theology, and was credited with a controversialist aptitude for addressing religious topics from a secular point of view.

Day-to-day work in the editorial department at The Sun was demanding. The paper published as many as seven editorials daily. Assignments were often sparked by unexpected but timely events, with same-day deadlines leaving little time for preparation or consideration.

That was the case one autumn afternoon in 1897, when Frank's boss handed him a letter to the editor a child had written and suggested Frank write a reply.

By then Frank was a veteran editorialist, likely the epitome of an inky wretch. He may have also been working on one or more of the six other editorial columns that day, which included a Canadian railroad's plans to help haul gold back from the Yukon, and British naval strength in the Atlantic.

With an air of resignation, according to his boss, Frank took the letter back to his desk. Though Frank had been married for more than 25 years, he and his wife had no children. And yet here he was, charged with coming up with an answer for an 8-year-old girl who was asking about, of all things, Santa Claus!

There may not have been anyone more unqualified to explain the matter. "Tell me the truth," little Virginia had written. In only a few hours, Frank did just that, and created a timeless masterpiece that has become the most reprinted editorial of all time.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," and if you haven't read it lately, it's more than worth the two-minute re-read on Google. Frank (Francis Pharcellus Church was his full given name) managed to squeeze several iconic sentences about faith, truth and the Christmas spirit into a 400-word essay he hadn't even planned to write, excerpted here:

"All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little."

"[H]ow dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias."

"The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see."

The editorial was a sensation, but nobody then knew Frank Church was the author. That revelation would come only after his death in 1906, when The Sun broke with its policy and named Frank as the writer in a tribute.

From 1920 till it closed in 1950, The Sun reprinted the editorial annually. It has appeared in thousands of other newspaper editions, holiday books and anthologies. Many newspapers, including this one, still reprint it each Christmas season.

The celebration of Frank's editorial commemorates more than just a wonderful Christmastime story. It's also a testament to the power of good editorial writing.

American editorialism is built on underpinnings of hope and aspiration. Those enduring ideals intensify during the holidays. One definition of a good editorial is that it says something everybody knows but nobody has said before.

Frank Church did that. His words still make glad our hearts.


Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.


Print Headline: Most reprinted editorial

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