May 09, 2004

Postcards for Mom

We made the paper, and I got quoted! The full article can be found here and I've included it in the extended entry below. My brilliant contribution is in bold. Let's hope that no one lets the cat out of the bag and we can continue this project!

Don't tell mom
By Todd Frankel
Of the Post-Dispatch

Every afternoon after she gets off work, Celeste Shepp sits down at her kitchen table, letter opener in hand, and reads the mail - hundreds of pieces of mail over the last seven months, all of it from people she doesn't know.

She's received letters and postcards from nearly every state and all over the world. Wishes of happy birthday and sweet notes. Business cards and mementos.

She doesn't know how these people got her address. She doesn't know why they're writing her. She is confused and flattered by all the attention.

"I'm just a nobody," Shepp, 50, insists.

The mail says otherwise. A sampling: "This is it! We finally got our rings! I'm so excited to be sharing this with you! Don't forget the wedding in September! Love, Jen and Eric," a couple from New Britain, Conn., wrote her.

If only she knew them.

Going into this Mother's Day weekend, Shepp still doesn't know what to make of it. She's accused everyone in her family of being behind it. But the cards keep coming, a steady stream of what she calls "silly mail" pouring into her home in Winfield in Lincoln County, about 45 miles northwest of St. Louis. Unable to stop it, she's learned to like it.

"I look forward to the mail now," says Shepp, who works as an aide at a St. Peters school helping a disabled kindergartner.

Shepp's son, Will Hanke, who lives in Arnold, knows all about the mail. But don't tell his mom. What started as a small joke on his mother has ballooned to include thousands worldwide thanks to online word-of-mouth and Hanke's Web site

This story is about more than just a fine-tuned practical joke. It's about mom.

Will Hanke loves his mom. And the idea of writing en masse to someone's mom - anyone's mom - touched many of the thousands of people who have visited his site, the 2,000 people who so far have requested his mother's address and the hundreds who have sent kind notes to her.

They sense how Hanke feels about his mom, and maybe how they feel about their own.

"I think it comes from a deep affection for his mother," Shelby Hogan, 30, an American living in Hamburg, Germany, and a prolific mailer to Hanke's mom since February, writes in an e-mail interview.

"I think everyone loves to get mail," Hogan adds. "... There's something special about receiving a postcard or a letter that someone actually took the time to hand write and mail. Even if it's from someone you don't know."

Dana Kirkwood, who lives in West Lafayette, Ind., mailed a second postcard to Will Hanke's mom last week.

"I don't think it's a malicious thing at all. It's quite a positive thing about how he feels about his mother," Kirkwood, 36, says.

Playing her song

The idea to send postcards to his mother hit Hanke in early November. Hanke, 31, was in the car with his wife, Carol, 28, and their four children. They were on their way back from the Wal-Mart in Festus. The radio was playing the song "Another Postcard" by the pop group Barenaked Ladies. The song caught Hanke's imagination. What if he got a bunch of people to send postcards to his mom?

Hanke first jumped on to eBay, the online marketplace. He asked people selling postcards if they wouldn't mind sending one to his mom. A trickle of mail started to arrive at Shepp's home.

At the end of December, Hanke decided to crank up the prank. He runs his own Web design company, Lighthouse Technologies, out of his home. He threw together a Web site. was born.

To drum up support, Hanke posted messages on several online message boards to encourage visitors to his fledgling site. It took off. He got 44,000 hits his first month. He was up to 88,000 by the second.

The mail poured in at Shepp's home. Shepp kept it in a small basket. Then one kitchen drawer. Now two kitchen drawers.

Shepp suspected someone in the family was to blame. Practical jokes run in the family. Shepp is one of 10 children, and when all the kids used to gather at their mom's house in Texas, the picture of the second oldest child always disappeared from the wall. The joke was that that child was out of the will.

So Shepp has pointed the finger at her two sisters who live in the St. Louis area. She's considered her husband, Jim. She's tried to trip up Hanke and his older brother, Kevin.

"I think they're all in cahoots," Shepp says. "I really do."

As a child growing up in Barnhart in Jefferson County, Hanke loved the Three Stooges. His mom did not. She wouldn't let him or his brother watch it. Hanke found other outlets for his joking streak. He was a little boy looking for his mom's attention. He'd find brown rocks in the creek behind his house and slip them in with the potatoes. He'd gather white wooden eggs from abandoned farmhouses and put them in the egg carton.

But Hanke never liked lying to his mom. And that's one problem with his postcard project. He's had to draw a line between the life his mom knows about and the one centered on postcards that she can't. "That really bothered me when she started quizzing me," Hanke says.

Hanke has some basic rules for "Sending Stuff to Mom": Letters shouldn't mention the Web site or him (so as not to give it away); no perverted stuff ("C'mon, it's my mom"); try to throw in a mention of the Air Force (his older brother, Kevin, is in the Air National Guard); and have fun.

In exchange for an e-mail address, a visitor gets Hanke's mom's mailing address.

Hanke also suggested themes. In January, he asked people to send bottlecaps to his mom. Next it was business cards. In March, recipes with one detail removed and replaced with "secret ingredient." This month, people are supposed to send her comic strips with the last panel missing.

To confuse her even more, Hanke posts on the Web site hard-to-know details about his mom, like the news that her husband's niece's friend is pregnant.

"I've been getting cards asking about the baby!" Shepp says, laughing. "People from Podunk, Arkansas, want to know!"

Hanke knows not everyone understands what he's doing. But those who get it, love it. People ask Hanke to send postcards to their mothers. He's heard from mothers who wished their children had done this for them. Hanke's wife admits she wished he'd done it to her.

"Surprises in the mail every day? It's a neat thing," Carol Hanke says.

Jen and Eric

Jennifer LaFerriere gets it. She stumbled on the site in November.

"I just thought it was hilarious, the coolest thing," LaFerriere, 27, says. "He set up this whole big thing just to send his mom junk."

LaFerriere has written Hanke's mom at least once a month. Her letters read like they've known each other for 20 years. LaFerriere provides detailed updates on her wedding this fall in Cape Cod. She even plans to send Shepp an invitation.

And in some peculiar way, Shepp does know LaFerriere. She is half of "Jen and Eric," the couple who excitedly informed Shepp about their wedding rings.

Hanke's original idea was just to pull a cute prank on his mom. But the people who've sent letters have gotten something in return, too. Michelle Woods, a graduate student in Pittsburgh, first dropped a postcard to Hanke's mom during a trip to New Orleans to visit a friend dying from cancer. Writing that note was cathartic, Woods, 29, says.

"It was an opportunity to send a letter to someone I didn't know, didn't know what I was going through, or why I was in New Orleans," she says.

Today, Woods finds herself writing more letters to her own mother and sister.

Mother's Day is perhaps the right time to tell Shepp about the mystery of her mail. Hanke knows this. But he resists.

"Nah, it's too early. I've been having too much fun," he says.

He pauses, thinking it over.

"It would be perfect timing."

He considers it. He knows he can't keep the secret much longer. Not after a story in the newspaper, which he welcomes as a challenge.

"But there are so many more things we can send her."

Hanke's mom doesn't want it to end, either, even as she doesn't understand why it's happening.

Recently, she went through her collection of "silly mail." She reached into a pile of letters and pulled out a white business-size envelope mailed from Virginia.

"Here's one that I love," Shepp said. She unfolded the letter. Just simple instructions for boiling water. But a yellow sticky note attached to the back caught her eye.

Hanke's mom read the note aloud: "Why don't you ever write back?" And, at that, she laughed.

Posted by Shelby at May 9, 2004 12:14 AM

I heard it was a good article. I'll have to check it out :)

Thanks, Shelby, for your quotes. Made me sound like a nice guy... hahahha

Posted by: will at May 9, 2004 05:43 AM
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