Wednesday, August 15, 2007



Perhaps you have never heard of Katherine Lawes. Katherine was the
wife of Lewis Lawes, warden at Sing Sing Prison from 1920-1941.

Sing Sing had the reputation of destroying wardens. The average
warden's tenure before Lewis Lawes was two years. "The easiest way to
get out of Sing Sing," he once quipped, "is to go in as warden." In
his 21 years he instituted numerous reforms - and an important part of
his success was due to his wife Katherine.

Katherine took seriously the idea that the prisoners are human beings,
worthy of attention and respect. She regularly visited inside the
walls of Sing Sing. She encouraged the prisoners, ran errands for them
and spent time listening to them. Most importantly, she cared about
them. And as a result, they cared deeply about her.

Then one night in October of 1937, news was "telegraphed" between the
prison cells that Katherine was killed in an accident. The prisoners
petitioned the warden to allow them to attend her funeral bier. He
granted their strange request and a few days later the south gate of
Sing Sing swung slowly open. Hundreds of men - felons, lifers,
murderers, thieves - men convicted of almost every crime conceivable,
marched slowly from the prison gate to the bier, reassembled at the
house and returned to their cells. There were so many that they
proceeded unguarded. But not one tried to escape. If he had, the
others may have killed him on the spot, so devoted were they to
Katherine Lawes, the woman who daily walked into Hell to show the men
a piece of Heaven.

Katherine's strength was to see the men less as prisoners and more as
individuals. Thomas Moore has said, "We can only treat badly those
things or people whose souls we disregard."

To treat people well is to honor their souls. To honor their souls is
to understand what it means to love your neighbor.

Monday, August 13, 2007


When I was quite young, my father had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood.  I remember well the polished old case fastened to the wall.  The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box.  I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother used to talk to it.

Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person -- her name was "Information Please" and there was nothing she did not know.  "Information Please" could supply anybody's number and the correct time.

My first personal experience with this genie-in-the-bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor.  Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer.

The pain was terrible, but there didn't seem to be any reason in crying because there was no one home to give sympathy.   I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway.

The telephone!

Quickly, I ran for the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing.  Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to my ear.  "Information Please," I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear. 


"I hurt my finger. . .," I wailed into the phone.  The tears came readily enough now that I had an audience. 

"Isn't your mother home?" came the question. 

"Nobody's home but me," I blubbered. 

"Are you bleeding?"

"No," I replied.  "I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts." 

"Can you open your icebox?" she asked.  I said I could.  "Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger," said the voice.

After that, I called "Information Please" foreverything.  I asked her for help with my geography and she told me where Philadelphia was.  She helped me with my math.  She told me my pet chipmunk that I had caught in the park just the day before would eat fruits and nuts. Then, there was the time Petty, our pet canary died.  I called "Information Please" and told her the sad story.  She listened, then said the usual things grown-ups say to soothe a child.  But I was UN-consoled.  I asked her, "Why is it that birds should
sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?"

She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, "Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in."  Somehow I felt better.

Another day I was on the telephone.  "Information Please."

"Information," said the now familiar voice.

"How do you spell 'fix'?"  I asked.

All this took place in a small town in the Pacific northwest.  When I was 9 years old, we moved across the country to Boston.  I missed my friend very much.   "Information Please" belonged in that old wooden box back home, and somehow never thought of trying the tall, shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall.

As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me.  Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity I would recall the serene sense of security I had then.  I appreciated now how patient,
understanding, and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.

A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle.  I had about half an hour or so between planes.  I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister, who lived there now.  Then without thinking what I
was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, "Information, Please."

Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well, "Information."

I hadn't planned this, but I heard myself saying, "Could you please tell me how to spell 'fix'?"

There was a long pause.  Then came the soft spoken answer, "I guess your finger must have healed by now."

I laughed.  "So it's really still you," I said.  "I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time."

"I wonder," she said, "if you know how much your calls meant to me.  I never had any children, and I used to look forward to your calls."

I told her how often I had thought of her over the years and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister.

"Please do," she said.  "Just ask for Sally."

Three months later I was back in Seattle.  A different voice answered, "Information."  I asked for Sally.

"Are you a friend?" she said.

"Yes, a very old friend," I answered.

"I'm sorry to have to tell you this, she said.  Sally had been working part-time the last few years because she was sick.    She died five weeks ago."  Before I could hang up she said, "Wait a minute.  Did you say your name was Paul?"


"Well, Sally left a message for you.  She wrote it down in case you called.  Let me read it to you."  The note said, "Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in.  He'll know what I mean."

I thanked her and hung up.  I knew what Sally meant.

Never underestimate the impression you may make on others.

~ Author Unknown ~