Man spends first Christmas with family in 35 years

Photo By Erica Yoon
Woodrow Ericson, 90, watches while his great-niece, Pam Egeler, shares photos of the Ericson family that date back to the 1800s. Woodrow spent his first Christmas with family in 35 years in Elizabethton this season.
  By Julie Fann
  Woodrow Ericson, 90, from Minnesota, won the chance to celebrate his first Christmas spent with family in 35 years this holiday season. His nephew, Keith Ericson, of Elizabethton, recently greeted him at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport with tears and a rare embrace.
  "I said, 'Are you going to hug him when you see him?', because they usually just shake hands, and Dad said, 'Nah.' But when he saw him, he hugged him and cried, and so did my mom. It's just different seeing him here," said Pam Egeler, Keith Ericson's daughter and Woodrow's great-niece.
  Uncle Woodrow was able to visit family in Elizabethton through a contest sponsored by WCQR, a Christian radio station in Gray, and the Fort Henry Mall in Kingsport. Putting a twist on the traditional "fly away" promotion, instead of flying someone out of the area, the station decided to fly someone into the Tri-Cities for the holidays.
  Hundreds of contestants wrote letters explaining why their loved one should be chosen to receive the trip, and Egeler's eloquent letter won her the grand prize. "Uncle Woodrow said on the telephone that it had been 35 years since he had spent Christmas with family. Everybody has a story, but I wrote the letter, and they liked it, and I think writing well really helped," Egeler said. "After they called to tell me, I couldn't stop smiling."
  Woodrow has lived his entire life in rural Minnesota and only recently moved out of the farmstead home in Kerkhoven, Minn. that his family built in 1892 after immigrating to the United States from Sweden. Working as a farmer and carpenter to preserve the family farm, which was just two years shy of being one century old and in the same family when he sold it, Ericson sacrificed his dream of someday going to college and becoming a minister.
  "His mother passed away when he was 19 of bone cancer, and he promised his mother that he would stay on the farm and help his father," Egeler said. "His father died 36 years ago. He had trouble leaving the farm because he was alone there. His only brother and all his family had moved away."
  As a substitute for his own family, Woodrow spent every Christmas with others in the community who took him in since responsibilities on the farm and in the community kept him from traveling.
  "But he always had an invitation (to be with us). He was never alone for Christmas; there were a couple of families he spent Christmas with and it's not as though he had regrets or anything. It makes me think of how we should do that for those here who have no family to be with during Christmas," Egeler said.
  "Through reading, he knows more than any university professor I've ever met. He was sitting here reading our encyclopedias last night and making comments about when things happened, and it's amazing."
  Named after former President Woodrow Wilson, Ericson remembers well a life before World War I when provisions for his family were plentiful and life was without hardship. Aside from farming, he has spent his time devoting himself to Christian ministry - and keeping an amazing secret for 20 years, since he was 70 years old.
  While delivering Bibles to prisons in their local area in Minnesota and assisting nursing home residents, Woodrow and his then-girlfriend, Vida Williams, kept secret from Woodrow's family the special truth that they were more than Christian servants together - they were also dating each other.
  "When my mother died, my brother tried to get ahold of uncle Woodrow. Finally, someone had gotten word to him, and he had gotten married. He came to the funeral, and we didn't know he was getting married; we didn't even know he was seeing anyone," Keith Ericson said.
  That was nearly five years ago. On the day of the interview for this story, Woodrow's family heard for the first time how he met his beloved wife.
  "Public speaking I understand, and do it, but I know how to shut up too, so we've kept company since at least 20 years ago. I shut up, and nobody knew about it. She had a mother to take care of, you see," Woodrow said.
  A Bible study might not be the most likely place to meet a marriage partner, but, for Woodrow Ericson, it was the most reasonable in, oh, 1984. "She sat in the middle of the back row, and I saw two things - she was neatly dressed and she was attentive. I was teaching, and I had a reference over in 2nd Peter, and low and behold, it was torn out of my ragged Bible, so I said, 'Nevermind, it's so-and-so and that's what it says.' See, in those days I could remember. I just quoted off what was said there and went on with the lesson."
  Sometime later, Vida Williams delivered a new Bible to Woodrow's home with her first name printed on the inside of it and her address. "So I wrote her a thank you note, just a note of appreciation, and forgot about it," he said. Then, Vida invited Woodrow to a picnic.
  "I went off to the picnic, and she sat there, and she was buttering a slice of bread for us. When she got through, she licked the knife off with her tongue, and then I thought to myself, 'She's all right; she'll do.'"
  The family spent the Christmas holiday showing Woodrow and Vida the town of Elizabethton and listening to Woodrow's stories of the past, especially memories of his nephew, Keith.
  "I think it's great to have them here at Christmas. We're rarely together here at Christmas time, so this is really special," Keith said.