This inspirational tale of the “teacher who made a difference” (and its unnecessary explanatory coda) can be found on hundreds of web sites all over the Internet and has been widely forwarded as a “good luck” chain letter via e-mail. And why not? It epitomizes principles we fervently wish to believe: that a dedicated educator (and religion) can make a positive, lasting difference in one’s life; and that the world would be a better place if we found it in our hearts to reach out to each other. (Just in case we missed the point, the didactic end paragraph states it explicitly.)
Sister Helen Mrosla, a Franciscan nun, submitted “All the Good Things” to Proteus, A Journal of Ideas in 1991. Her article also appeared in Reader’s Digest that same year, was reprinted in the original Chicken Soup for the Soul book in 1993, and was offered yet again in 1996’s Stories for the Heart.
Sister Mrosla first met Mark Eklund in her third-grade classroom at St. Mary’s School in Morris, Minnesota, in 1959, and she encountered him again in 1965 when she served as his junior high math teacher. In April 1971, Mark was sent to Vietnam and assigned to the 585th Transportation Company in Phu Bai where he worked in a truck parts depot, and he kept in touch with his family and friends (including Sister Mrosla) through letters. In August 1971, as she was returning from a vacation, Sister Mrosla learned of Mark’s death from her parents. (Although he died in Vietnam, Mark Eklund was not killed in combat; he died in his sleep of a pulmonary and cerebral edema.)
In 1999, Sister Mrosla talked to an Associated Press reporter about Mark Eklund:
His letters to family painted a safe picture, describing his work as a clerk at a truck parts depot far from the shooting. But to friends, including Sister Mrosla, he revealed fears of dying and frustration over what he perceived as a fruitless war effort. He told his former teacher about lying in his bunk listening to a firefight one night.
“He was scared to death from the shooting,” Sister Mrosla said. “He’d have nightmares about it. I remember telling him I was praying for him.” She filled her letters with stories about her students and how much they were like his class.
Mourners at Mark’s funeral lined the block around the red-brick Assumption Church, second only to the town’s grain elevator in height. They filed up the stairs, into the sanctuary and past the open black casket. Sister Mrosla was the last in line.
[Mark’s classmate Chuck] Lesmeister helped bear the casket, draped in a flag, to a hearse for the five-block ride to the cemetery, where a soldier played “Taps.” As it was lowered into the ground, a soldier approached Sister Mrosla.
“Are you Mark’s math teacher?” he asked. “He talked about you. You may want to talk to his parents about his personal effects.”
The Eklunds were waiting for the nun when she arrived at a reception at the Lesmeister family farmhouse. Standing in the sunny kitchen, James Eklund pulled out a wallet.
“We want to show you something. They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it,” he said, gently taking out a worn piece of paper that had been refolded many times and taped together.
A few of Mark’s school friends who were gathered around also recognized the paper, and one by one they told her they still had theirs.
Lesmeister preserved his in his wedding album. Marilyn Lohr kept hers in her diary. And like Mark, Jim Halbe had his with him in his wallet.
Although Sister Mrosla indicated she was happy that the circulation of her article on the Internet had brought Mark’s story to a global audience, she was less than pleased that it had been turned into a chain letter promising good luck to recipients who passed it on. “It cheapens it somehow,” she said.