After battling different forms of cancer for more than three decades, former Redmond High School teacher Vivienne Klingbeil decided to end her chemotherapy treatments last July.
She died from the illness on Jan. 12. She was 77 years old.
During the region’s record-breaking snowstorms in February, her two sons, Chris and Kevin, arranged a memorial service; the weather prevented many from attending. But later, as cousin Heather Johnson helped the brothers sort through their mother’s belongings, they found a box filled with envelopes — each one stamped, sealed and addressed with different penmanship.
“What the heck is this?” Johnson recalled thinking. “Was she stealing mail or something?”
Almost immediately, Chris recognized the names on the self-addressed envelopes. The names belonged to his old classmates at Redmond High.
He and Johnson, herself an educator in Tacoma, then pieced it together: The bundle contained some 100 letters that Klingbeil — who then went by Mrs. Franklin, her second husband’s name — asked her students in the 1980s to write to their future selves. She had planned to mail the letters five years later, but forgot about them.
Once Chris realized the significance of the papers, he got chills. Then, a practical question occurred to him: “Dear god, how do we get this to all those students?”
They found the answer in an innovation that didn’t exist in the ’80s: Johnson scoured the internet and social media for any Redmond High alumni who expected one of those letters so long ago. And as the 30-year-old letters started arriving in their mailboxes, the now-grown students recalled memories of the assignment and the impact Klingbeil had on their lives.
Many described her as their favorite teacher. Betty Sierra said Klingbeil inspired her to eventually become an English teacher, and she now oversees 42 schools as a central administrator in Houston.
Sierra chuckled at her letter’s admission of her party years during high school and fawning description of her first love.
“I wish I could say we’ll be together forever, but you never know those kinds of things,” she wrote to a future Betty.
“What was really weird for me,” Sierra said, “I don’t remember writing that I wanted two boys and one girl. That came true.”
She and others described reading their letters as opening a time capsule.
“For a few years some of us wondered whatever happened to those letters … then we mostly forgot about them,” Seattle resident James Dailey said. “It was wonderful to get the letter from my 17-year-old self. (It was) full of opinions, confidence and some strange mixture of right and wrong ideas of the future.”
The letter also reminded him of a beloved teacher.
“Beyond teaching the fundamentals of writing and critical thinking — and (Klingbeil) was incredible at that — I think we got from her a sense (that) life is an adventure,” Dailey said. “What a privilege she gave us.”
On Klingbeil’s online obituary, some former students recalled her “devilishly fun sparkly blue eyes” and habit of sitting on the edge of her desk, leaning forward.
Jennifer Filarski took two of Klingbeil’s classes during her senior year at Redmond High. Her favorite: Creative writing.
“She was so incredibly gifted at inspiring young people to open up and freely write,” she said. “She also was amazing at relating to her students.”
When Filarski received the letter from 1986, she could scarcely believe she was its author.
“It truly is crazy how much we change from 18 to 50, and something to remind young people today: You will do so much growing and maturing after high school,” she said. “It was such a treasure to receive the letter.”
On the envelope he had addressed in 1986, Phil Honeywell wished his future self five happy birthdays and five happy new years. He doodled logos for The Who and Squaw Valley Ski Resort.
The envelope also contained some newspaper clippings of TV listings. “And then a box (from the sports pages) from when the Mariners were terrible — oh wait, they still are,” said Honeywell, now a father of three in Pullman.
“To finish that conversation with an 18-year-old me was fascinating,” he said. “And an extra bonus: My son is a senior in high school right now, so to go back and get a glimpse of my mind at his age.”
The letters also have helped ease some of the grieving process for Klingbeil’s survivors.
“She helped countless people realize their intelligence,” said Chris, who lives in Australia. “It always makes it easier when you have people put your mom on a pedestal.”
As of this week, Johnson still had about 75 letters waiting to be returned to their original authors. If you think one of them is yours, you can email her at HAJheather@gmail.com to check.
“I have this bag of letters,” she said. “These are their dreams, and what people saw in their future selves.”
She wished she could receive one herself.