Rosenblum: Rediscovered letters link prisoner, kids 40 years later

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 17, 2012 - 9:52 PM

This is the story of a felon-turned-award-winning journalist, a passionate publisher, a strong-willed negotiator and a little bit of "Storage Wars," too.

Mostly, it's the tale of young religion students who, 40 years ago, participated in a bold letter-writing exchange that most had long forgotten.

This month, their letters are alive again, offering insight into the penal system from youthful minds just beginning to grasp the rougher edges of a more complicated world.

"Who are you, Harley Sorensen?" wrote 11-year-old Maynard Havlicek, unaware of the depth of his question. Sorensen was so many things.

Harley Sorensen appeared in this column in February 2011, about a week after he died of heart failure in San Francisco at age 79. California was his adopted state. Sorensen, who worked for the Minneapolis Tribune in the 1970s, grew up in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, a Depression-era baby whose father died when he was 3.

Loosely supervised, to say the least, he wrote four-letter words in chalk on a building at age 4, and set a newspaper page on fire in a crawl space before hitchhiking to Chicago at 12.

He attended college on the GI Bill, but couldn't divorce himself from trouble. On April 28, 1962, the 30-year-old Sorensen walked into an unlocked apartment in south Minneapolis and stole $60. When a woman awoke and chased after him, he punched her in the jaw.

He got 20 years in Stillwater prison. While there, he edited the Prison Mirror newspaper and won many awards for his writing. In 1971, just before being paroled after serving nearly nine years, he got a unique opportunity for self-reflection. He began a letter-writing exchange with children in Mary Thienes' sixth-grade Saturday religion class at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Maplewood. Thienes, 18, had a boyfriend who served briefly in prison. She saw this as an important learning experience for her charges.

Sorensen was delighted. Give me a range of students, he wrote to Thienes, "not just the smartest ones or the best readers or best writers or best spellers."

Nineteen children participated, their questions funny, raw and, often, stunningly perceptive.

What kind of food do you eat? Do they have to do exercises? Do you get lonely and cry? What happens when they try to get out? When prisoners get life sentences, do they sometimes go out of their heads?

"Do some people die there?" asked Joan Mahoney-Richardson, now 52. She remembers many students from the sixth-grade class and is tickled with the discovery. "Unbelievable," she said. "Isn't that just wild?"

Sorensen's answers were thoughtful and, at times, parental.

"I am a little worried about you," he writes to a boy posing smart-alecky questions. "A boy who acts silly is usually afraid to tell how he really feels about things."

Do people get bored, asked a boy named Joe. "Yes, in fact, boredom is one of the big problems with prison life," Sorensen wrote. "I think it is because we feel we have no real value in life while we're here."

Sorensen hoped those letters would become a book, but his proposal was rejected by New York publishers. The letters, awards and copies of the Mirror were tossed into boxes that landed in an abandoned storage bin in Minneapolis.

Sorensen moved to San Francisco, where he was a columnist for SFGate.com and a taxi driver for 22 years. Many of his best columns came from those drives.

After he died, the manuscript of children's letters was rediscovered by a Minnesota man who buys contents of abandoned storage units. He contacted Sorensen's long-time partner, Betty Wyren. He wanted several thousand dollars for the contents. Wyren negotiated way down, emphasizing how much the letters would mean to Sorensen's family. Then she contacted Brent Andrews, a writer and longtime Sorensen fan.

Andrews, owner of a small publishing company in Franklin, Tenn., drove across the country, sleeping in his car to get to Sorensen's boxes as fast as possible. A relieved Andrews released "Prison Is a Place" this month under his Chronic Discontent Books label (www.chronicdiscontent.com).

The title nods to a heart-wrenching Sorensen poem that reads, in part, "Prison is a place where you see men you do not admire and wonder if you are like them."

Havlicek, 53, laughs to imagine that he is part of this work. The grammar-challenged Havlicek doesn't remember the assignment, but he does remember thinking that the last place he wanted to be on Saturday mornings was at religious school.

But reading his boyhood exchange this week from his office in Shoreview, he was touched.

Who was Harley Sorensen? He was a writer. A loving partner. A big man -- 6 feet 2 and over 200 pounds. A sports fan and a chess champ.

Above all, Sorensen was a man who turned his life around, Havlicek said. "He had the ability to see that life could be good. He knew there would be an opportunity for him to have another chance."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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