BRATTLEBORO -- When his first child, Donna, was about to go off to college, Frank Dearborn gave her the most wonderful gift.
"He said, ‘I'll write to you on Sunday. Will you do the same?' We never stopped," said Donna Dearborn, who exchanged letters with her Dad every Sunday for the next 32 years.
Even when she was far from home, teaching in Korea, working in New Zealand, trekking in Thailand or skiing in Norway, her father's letters would find her. "It was just having unconditional love that you could count on, and it was just the faithfulness of it. It was just a gift. I'm so grateful that I had that in my life. It meant that he cared in a really deep way."
Those letters stopped on a September day in 2003 when Frank Dearborn, robust and healthy at age 75 and at the end of a day in which he had taken a vigorous three-mile walk, played tennis and mowed the lawn, had a stroke. Applying the same earnestness, sincerity and joy in living to his recovery that had made him such a beloved figure in his 33 years as Brattleboro's Superintendent of Recreation and Parks, Frank Dearborn made a strong recovery.
He started writing Donna again on Sundays. By Dec. 6, he was able to sing once more in the Messiah Sing at Centre Congregational Church, one of his favorite things. A few days later, he went out snowshoeing with his family. But there, he collapsed, the victim of another and more serious stroke.
Cruelly, the work he had done to rehabilitate himself was undone. Though he received excellent and loving care from family and friends, staff at Grace Cottage Hospital and then at Vernon Green, his new life was hard. This once robust and energetic man who was a life-long advocate of the active life, was paralyzed on his left side. Formerly a gregarious people-person, he was now withdrawn.
"He was so deeply sad. He no longer spoke much. I sat there and said, ‘What can I do that flips this to a more positive thing?' I hated that memory (of the way he was then)," said Donna.
She began to call to mind all the memories of the active times she had shared with her father -- climbing Mt. Washington, hiking the Long Trail, biking, skiing, running, canoeing, playing tennis, lobbing footballs, maintaining trails and building shelters on them. She started writing those memories down.
"I had a lot of memories that really helped me to cope, and it helped him because I shared it all with him," said Donna. "I kept writing, and I never stopped writing. I was doing it as just something to cope with the moments which were so tough.
Ultimately, all that writing turned into a book, "Every Sunday: A Father and Daughter's Enduring Connection," which Donna Dearborn has just self-published through WW Publishing of Chester. A memoir and tribute to her father and the loving bond they shared, the book is something more -- a loving look at family, the upbeat way they lived life and the resilient way they dealt with life's hardest times. It is a story of extraordinary faithfulness, hope and love.
Donna Dearborn will discuss "Every Sunday" on Wednesday, Feb. 12, at 7 p.m., at the Brooks Memorial Library Meeting Room.
The book will obviously have special resonance for local folks who knew Frank Dearborn. In his 33 years as Superintendent of Recreation and Parks, Dearborn left an extraordinary legacy, including tirelessly championing the development of Living Memorial Park. With equal energy, he advocated -- and lived -- a life-long devotion to exercise, activity and time spent in the Great Outdoors. Beyond that, he left a large legacy of human kindness, decency and caring.
When he died in 2009, the Brattleboro Reformer wrote in an editorial: "Brattleboro is a better place to live, thanks to the spirit and foresight that helped create Living Memorial Park and the Gibson-Aiken Center. Frank Dearborn forged that spirit and foresight into a priceless community resource."
A real-life George Bailey from "It's a Wonderful Life," Dearborn's love of the life he found in Brattleboro helped him touch countless other lives.
"Brattleboro meant so much. He gave a lot to the town, and the town gave him so much back," said Donna, who noted that her father received many offers, some very tempting, to live and work in other, larger cities across the country, but always chose to stay in Brattleboro and never regretted it. "He just loved Vermont, and he was happy to call Brattleboro home and never leave."
Turning the stories she began writing down during a dark time in her family's life into a book was a slow process that evolved over a decade.
While her father was in the nursing home, Donna Dearborn joined Jan Frazier's writing group and began sharing the stories there. There, she received encouragement to turn the stories into a book -- but not without considerable work. Dearborn had written some 550 pages, which would need to be condensed and focused. Through Frazier, she connected with editor Kate Gleason, who was an invaluable guide to honing the stories. Book designer John Reinhardt was equally invaluable. Through it all, Dearborn is grateful, too, for the steadfast support of her husband, Wally Kangas, who also serves as the book's marketing director.
Writing and re-writing 10 hours a day, six days a week, Dearborn worked hard, taking one significant break -- a month-long trek to Patagonia last year to honor her 60th birthday.
"Through these outdoor things, I feel my Dad's strong presence," she said. "He was always an athlete. He did all sports for the love of it. He promoted lifetime sports. Health mattered to him."
The book contains some other important takeaway lessons.
"I think about my Dad, and I think, ‘How did become such a good dad?' I've always thought that he could have taught a course on How to Become a Good Dad," Donna said. "His best qualities as a dad are that he listened. He listened like nobody else listened. He listened with an open heart."
Other life lessons emerge in the book.
"You need to live life to the fullest. You need to follow your heart. Do the things you are meant to do," said Donna.
Writing "Every Sunday," Dearborn said, was definitely something she was meant to do. And it was a happy day when the first copies arrived from the printer last week -- on her mother's 85th birthday, as it turned out.
"It's exciting, and it's scary, too. I made the decision that I was willing to share this with the world," she said.
For more information about the Feb. 12 reading at Brooks Memorial Library, call 802-254-5290, ext. 0 or visit www.brookslibraryvt.org.
Jon Potter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 149.