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A story so heartwarming, it's unreal

Saturday, September 29, 2001

Among the more endearing frauds floating around out there is the story of little Teddy Stallard. If you listen to Paul Harvey, attend the occasional prayer breakfast or watch inspirational television mountebanks, you've likely heard about Teddy.

The story, in a nutshell: Mrs. Thompson, an elementary school teacher, dislikes a grubby, ill-kempt little underachiever in her class who, one Christmas, presents her with a broken rhinestone bracelet and a bottle of cheap perfume. She checks his record, finds that his mother has died and, after a weepy hour of self-reproach, takes him under her wing, where he blossoms. There follow three letters after his family moves out of town.

He graduates high school with honors.

He graduates college with honors.

He is now Dr. Theodore Stallard, M.D. -- "How about that!" -- and wants her to attend his wedding and sit where his late mother would have sat. She, of course, wears the broken rhinestone bracelet.

Across America, Teddy's story has pulled heartstrings straight out of their sockets. In Colorado three years ago, copies were sent to every teacher. On radio three years ago, Paul Harvey read it as a piece of news. Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund includes it in speeches.

Newspaper columnists have spent the last 10 years stealing it from one another.

The problem is that Teddy Stallard never lived.

He was created 25 years ago in the mind of a writer named Elizabeth Silance Ballard, now Elizabeth S. Ungar, of Virginia Beach, Va. Ungar, a 58-year-old grandmother still writing, is still amazed that a story she wrote and published under the label Fiction in a 1976 issue of Home Life magazine has devolved into an urban legend.

"I've had people use it in their books, except they made it as if it happened to them," Ungar told me when I tracked her down. "In the '80s I heard Robert Schuller tell this story on one of his broadcasts. He told it as if it was someone he knew."

Schuller's not alone. A parent in California, chastising local teachers for their reaction to special education students, wrote to the local paper and, before lapsing into the Teddy story, explained, "I know a teacher named Miss Thompson ... "

The story turned up, attributed to Elizabeth Silance Baynard, in Steven Vannoy's 1994 book "The Ten Greatest Gifts I Give My Children." Vannoy, who doesn't say the story is either true or fiction, tells readers, "I wish I knew the source of the piece so I could thank the author."

Ungar has seen Teddy -- and her copyright -- hijacked so often there ought to be a fourth letter from Teddy, laying out the ransom demands.

The real story is this: Decades ago, a friend of Ungar's was filling in as a Sunday school teacher. The kids were presenting Christmas gifts. A grubby little boy handed her a broken rhinestone bracelet and bottle of cheap perfume.

"She had gotten this gift from a child and it was so touching. She didn't know what to do," Ungar said. The teacher also didn't know anything about the child.

It set Ungar to thinking about her own youth, when the family didn't have enough money for little Elizabeth to give her teacher a Christmas gift back at Thompson Elementary in Jacksonville, N.C. At her grandmother's suggestion, she picked a boxful of pecans from a tree in her yard and presented it.

"Everybody started laughing," she said. The teacher saved the moment by declaring that she was making fruitcakes and Elizabeth's gift was just the thing she'd wanted.

From these two stories, the author combined her grandmother's last name, Stanley, and her own name at the time, Ballard, and invented Teddy Stallard, who was, in short order, kidnapped and carried off to any banquet in need of a heartwarming anecdote.

"The only thing I can think is that they're touched by it and it seems real to them," Ungar said.

What is real, of course, is that every person has the capacity to amount to something. Another truth is that Elizabeth Silance Ballard wrote a good story in 1976 -- good enough to warrant republication in her latest book, "Three Letters from Teddy and Other Stories."

And if somebody wants to tell Teddy's story, they ought to ask his mom who, as it turns out, is still alive, living in Virginia Beach, and would like the world to notice that even in the larger truths, Teddy Stallards can speak to us all. Fiction is, after all, still fiction.


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com.

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