With Affectionate Best Wishes

Maggie Nerz Iribarne

Maggie Nerz Iribarne

With Affectionate Best Wishes was accepted as part of the MSU Library Short Edition call for work on the theme of “recovery,” in coordination with the MSU Broad Art Museum's exhibit of Beverly Fishman's art, also called Recovery.


After I received the news, I trudged upstairs to retrieve the yellow folder sitting on the shelf in my attic office. I held it in my two hands, recognized its solid weight. Labelled Correspondence with Leo Dolenski, the folder held approximately two hundred pieces of uniform loose-leaf covered line-by-line in cursive black ink, a no-frills penmanship as controlled and consistent as the man who wrote it. I flipped through the pages: Dear Maggie, Dear Maggie, Dear Maggie. So many letters, so many years.

The ink on the imperfectly preserved pages - the earliest letter written in 1997 - was beginning to fade.

Leo would not have approved.

The Archivist

In 1993 I was 24 years old when I stepped into my first real job as assistant for public services at the main library at Bryn Mawr College. The library was teetering on the brink of change. The card catalogue had just gone digital, but the many tricks and charms of the internet remained a mystery.

Leo, the college archivist, a stalwart of the old guard, worked up on the second floor in a caged-off area, his small desk covered in books and papers. At age 61, tall and rugged with an often-tanned, chiseled face, he wore plain button-up dress shirts, open-collared with a tee shirt underneath, dress pants, and heavy shoes with dark socks.

Despite his desire to be hidden away with his old papers, Leo was tasked with covering the reference desk on Wednesday nights. He hated being out on the main floor, exposed to so many people, so much conversation, but had he not had that assignment we would have never become friends.

Back then, I stayed after my 9-5 hours most nights to work on my long-stagnated master's thesis in English, which just happened to be about Bryn Mawr alumna (class of 1909) and modernist poet, Marianne Moore. Around 6 PM on one of those Wednesday evenings, Leo and I found ourselves together in the staff room for our dinners. He sat in an old comfortable chair with a simple sandwich on whole wheat. I sat across from him, eating some leftover from a stained Tupperware container. I told him about my struggling paper. He said, "You know, we have a lot of Marianne Moore items here, right? We even have one of her capes and tri-cornered hats." Oddly, I didn't know that. At that point, I hadn't even been up to the archives at all for work, let alone for research. That would change.

In Leo's archives, I enjoyed gazing up at the many lanterns hanging from the ceiling. To this day, on Bryn Mawr's annual fall Lantern Night, first year undergraduates receive their own lantern from upperclasswomen, a symbol of passing the light of knowledge on to the next year. Leo worked under these once light-filled representations of so many life stories. He told me some of them, like his star-struck meeting with actress Katharine Hepburn, class of ‘28, when she once visited the library. Another story recounted his trip to Maine to collect donated papers from E.B. White, whose wife, Katharine Sergeant White, was also a Bryn Mawr alumna  (‘14). The author walked Leo around his property, showing off the barn where he first envisioned the spider Charlotte spinning her web in Charlotte's Web. As a lover of writers and books, this casual memory caused my jaw to drop.

When Leo retired, the college had a big sit-down lunch in an old room with dark paneled walls decorated with dusty oil paintings. He enjoyed kind speeches and gifts, a send-off worthy of his humble greatness. At the end, I approached him and said, "Can we write each other letters?"

He replied, "If you write me, I'll write you back."

He kept his promise.


There was a formula to Leo's letters: He would reference my letter and comment: "I liked the way you summarize your days of work, study, the books you are reading, your bike, your plans for the summer: ‘So overall, I am well.' Given that you're juggling many balls at the same time, there's something to be said for your statement." Then he might deliver wisdom or a piece of advice: "Since you find teaching (even teenagers!) a soul-satisfying experience, you have found your vocation. This is no little thing." Next, he would open up on a larger commentary on life, faith: "Belief though, is really the pearl of great price for it has the power to transform lives, and gives life itself great meaning." He often referenced a poem or essay that matched the content of my letter. His letters contained quotes from Richard Wilbur, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Mother Teresa, among many others. Sometimes he would share a little bit of his own emotions: "I miss my annual trip to Maine and the waters of the Penobscot. At least I had my chance." At the end he would return to something I said or a general feeling conveyed in my letter and give me a practical assessment: "I am pleased you're happy in your work, since you spend so much time at it."

Hope and Love

In his very first letter to me, written in June 1997, Leo said something that rings more true to me now than it ever could have then, and sets a theme for life, my life, all of life: "To live though is to learn that very few realities are permanent. There are beginnings and endings and more beginnings." Ending with that mention of beginnings was Leo's relentless style. No matter what dark event or concept he covered in his letters, he always returned to hope. Later, he said, "Christian hope tells us we have a future, a goal whose particulars we do not know. We believe that our lives do not end in a void, in emptiness, that justice will prevail and the tears will be wiped away." In the last letter Leo wrote me, dated December 2020, in response to my Christmas card, his handwriting shaky, he lamented the state of the pandemic, but conveyed hope for the future. He commented on the harrowing political scene of 2020 and while stating the bleak reality of a divided country, again offered hope. At the end, he wished my husband, son, and me a better 2021, ending with, "We need to breathe freely again."

Months later, my heart beat faster as soon as I saw the letter in my box, in a different handwriting, with a different name, but from Leo's address. I had written him just a few weeks before. A friend at his retirement community received it and wrote to tell me Leo died in March. Knowing this would be the last letter for my yellow folder, I cried that day and felt the now familiar weight of grief, but I liked the idea of Leo breathing freely in some new reality, some new beginning.


Leo and I could have corresponded by email, but when I first asked him if he would write to me, it was silently understood between us that I meant real letters. Paper letters. All these years I have wondered why I made sure I saved them, in order, in their physical state, rather than scanning them and dragging them into a folder on my computer's desktop. I feel proud of my collection, even though I am unsure of its significance. Will I ever read them again? Will I someday show or give them to someone? Will I throw them away? What is the purpose of saving anything? Maybe that is the central question of an archivist.

My husband, who incidentally has a Ph.D. in paper science, tells me of the merits of paper: It can be taken everywhere and anywhere, does not need an outside energy source to be used, is cheap to make, and has a much better resolution than a digital screen - it's easy on the eyes.

I will preserve Leo's letters properly, treasure them, continue to open my folder. I want to hear his unique voice speaking, echoing through the time of our shared history, my present and future. I will enjoy the comfort of his so-familiar handwriting. The ink may fade, but his presence, so real on these crisp pages, does not.  

My letters from my friend confirm my faith in paper. I know that Leo would agree.
I wish I had written to him about this.

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