Annabelle [ P.J. Erwin ]
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A Christmas letter for Lois Swoboda

In her will Lois Swoboda wrote that she did not want an obituary. To honor her wish, the Times had none. 

She did love Letters to Santa, though.

Each of the several years we worked together at the Times, she typed her share and more in the week leading up to Christmas, grabbing amply from among the bulging folders we received from the schools. It was typical of her not to shirk work.

This plodding assignment, while not as difficult as many of hers were, does have its baffling stretches when you’re looking down at just barely enough decipherable members of the alphabet that suggest the schoolkid intended a particular word, but sequenced the letters so as to make the sentence incog to to all but he or she whose eager but awkward fingers had set pencil to paper.

“I am sure Santa would get you what you want,” we would joke. “If he could figure out what you’re asking for.”

I am reflecting on this because while there are fewer this year to type, I must do them all, as Lois is no longer here to ponder the inscrutable messages that children paint on the walls of their caves.

To accomplish this task, I am taking the leaner stacks the newspaper has received this year, from Franklin County’s two public elementary schools, and dividing them into equal portions. I am typing them as I write this, tethering these tasks together with a leash designed to ensure incremental progress and rein in procrastination. This scientific method is in keeping with the rationalistic approach of Lois, holder of a doctorate in entomology.

Lois, for whom caring for dogs was a sacred duty, was not a big fan of leashing them. One of them, the infamous Gary, had a rap sheet longer than the worst offenders on the sheriff’s Facebook page, a mixed breed hound with a Houdini pedigree, whose getaways would lead to neighborhood-wide alarm and Lois’ need to rush off on the dog hunt to far-off reaches of the woods. 

Which is why when Charles Elliott called me on a Sunday to break the news that “we’ve lost Lois,” my mind immediately went to “one of those dogs has broken free again and now both of them are missing.” That, of course, was not what he meant.

The first letter in the bundle I am looking at is shaped like those four-sided folded paper “fortune tellers” with To: Soldier From: Zara, a fifth grader, with a tab that says “Pull” on the back to start the snapping finger operation. I can’t tell you what’s written inside, as my pulling it would spoil it for the soldier who receives it.

That’s the essence of a scientist, to figure stuff out. Not to marvel at chaos, or to delight in misunderstanding, or be tickled by childishness. To crack the code, to know what something means even when it is not readily apparent. To get past deeply-held belief into the provable realm less subject to the whims of the senses, to a world that can be pierced, grasped and shared by the mind to a greater extent than the senses can alone, as dominant as their grasp of things may seem at the time.

That’s why if you wanted to find Lois, you wouldn’t pay a visit to the Church on Sunday, but you might to the Meals on Wheels or to a residence where she was doing pest control for a friend. She was as faithful as anyone I have ever known, not to a belief, but to a task. To her, love was the act of doing for others, even when sometimes her feeling expressed wasn’t as warm and fuzzy as the coats of the dogs she cared for.

Hoss [ P.J. Erwin ]

Now that I think about it, that emphasis on doing right may have been the driving force why Lois delved into the letter typing assignment as she did. Sure, she liked Christmas as much as anybody; many years she would use the desks at the office as a sales display of the colorfully decorated potted shrubbery trees she would market for the Philaco Woman’s Club, and each year they sold out. 

But now I’m thinking that that drive may have been to thoroughly unravel these knotted sentences so that the kid would get his or her due in the reader’s eyes. She wanted to help them be understood, so that readers would know them.

The warm and fuzzy? That was for the sentimental and the soft-hearted, and for the coats of her three dogs, Chance, Hoss and Annabelle.

To ensure that her friend’s dearest wish was honored, Trish McLemore worked to arrange the adoption of the three dogs, which now are living happily among a menagerie of nine senior dogs on Marylou Athorn’s 20-acre farm in Gadsden County.

It’s just what Lois would have wanted. Love as a verb, an act of doing.

Chance [ P.J. Erwin ]

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Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor


  1. I am so sad to hear of the loss of. Great friend and person! I can’t believe she’s gone ! She always had so much energy! I know she will be missed by many

  2. This is a fine and appropriate tribute, without stepping on Lois’ demanding last wish. She might have appreciated the work-around, although publicly she surely would have grumbled.

    Previous correspondents to this link lucidly detailed her rigid exoskeleton, to borrow an anatomical description of insects. And inside, mirroring those same critters, she was soft and squishy.

    From afar I shall keep fond memories of her.

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