Fargo woman uncovers WWII love letters in abandoned house
Kerry Conlin, of Fargo, left, found a box of love letters in her home from a WWII-era romance between actors Vicki Bakken of Long Prairie, Minn., and Preston Hanson of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
FARGO - The wooden box was stained from age and covered with tattered canvas that gave no hint of the forgotten secrets it held.
At first glance, Kerry Conlin thought the plywood box was covering electrical wiring in the abandoned house in Kathryn that she and her husband, Paul, had bought to rescue from ruin.
When she opened the lid it quickly became apparent that the box had been carefully placed in a corner of a bedroom closet for safekeeping by someone long ago. The old box was a time capsule stuffed with letters, photographs and family albums dating back to the 1930s and 1940s.
Brunette, teenaged girls - sisters? - smiled beguilingly for their class portraits and mugged for the camera in school theatrical productions. There were the usual family snapshots in fading black and white of picnics, weddings and lakeside vacations.
But who was the woman who was featured in a National Geographic magazine from 1948 about life on the road with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus?
And who was the World War II hero who had been decorated with the Air Medal and Purple Heart kept in the box?
Even more intriguing for Kerry was a trove of old love letters from a beau named Preston who was pouring his heart onto the page for a woman he addressed as "Dearest Vickie?"
The two evidently were separated for long periods by circumstances. Both were struggling actors striving for careers on the flickering big screen in Hollywood. Preston was also a traveling stage actor.
In a time when long-distance telephone calls were a luxury, people kept in touch through letters and the occasional telegram. The love letter was an art form.
"You must marry me my dear Vickie," Preston wrote in 1948. "I must have you as my beloved wife."
But what to make of this cryptic comment in one of his letters: "You make a lovely widow my dear."
The epistolary courtship seemed to span from 1944 to 1948, then trailed off. Had the romance fizzled? Or been consummated? The jumbled letters, yellow and brittle with age, didn't say.
"There's obviously a huge amount of emotion and love here," Paul said. "There's a real love affair somewhere in this family."
"It's poetry," Kerry said.
Questions started to tumble out of the box. Were any of these people still alive? If so, she thought they would want to be reunited with the keepsakes that had fallen into her hands.
"This is a huge puzzle to piece together," Kerry said.
* * *
On a snowy day last winter, Kerry sat down at her dining room table with her laptop computer. It was time to unravel the mystery in the old box.
It soon became clear that many of the photos depicted a Spofford family in Long Prairie, Minn. A pair of sisters, Opal and Olive Spofford, figured prominently in the photo albums.
But what was their connection, if any, to the Vickie Bakken who was the recipient of so many amorous letters. And what to make of the variant spellings of her first name, often given as Vicki and sometimes as Vikki?
Was she the woman who was a circus tightrope artist featured as part of the spread in the old National Geographic?
And what was the connection to the World War II medals? Did they belong to one of the soldiers in the training battalion group photograph from Fort Robinson, Ark.?
Kerry started feeding names to Internet search engines and a few intriguing clues began to emerge.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute!" she exclaimed.
Vicki Bakken was an actress with a long list of credits in television and films, known for her minor roles in movies including "The Ten Commandments," "From Here to Eternity," as well as "The Greatest Show on Earth," a circus film starring Charlton Heston that was made in 1952.
Her most recent role came in 1994 when she portrayed Queen Elizabeth in a TV series, "Blue Skies."
"This is so exciting," Kerry said. "She was an actress. I love it."
Bakken's role of "Vicki" in the circus film was listed among uncredited performers, many appearing as themselves. One of those was a tightrope walker named Lola Dobritch, who had been in the National Geographic article a few years earlier.
Dobritch, it turned out, was a fourth-generation circus performer and native of Sofia, Bulgaria, who started touring with the Barnum and Bailey Circus at age 24. She died in 1986 in Sarasota, Fla.
So Vicki and Lola were friends. A close reading of letters showed that Vicki had been in the circus before she began appearing in films and television.
A sadder revelation came when Kerry delved into the fate of Ira Bakken. His name popped up as a member of the "Red Raiders," a bomber group of B-26 Marauder crews that flew in the Pacific theater during World War II.
His plane had gone down on a 1944 mission over Borneo when a flaming Japanese Zero fighter slammed into the bomber, sending both crashing to the ground. Bakken, a lieutenant and navigator, was one of 10 crew members lost.
"Ira was her brother, I bet," Kerry said, drawing a connection between Vicki Bakken and Ira, who was from Long Prairie, Minn.
But who was Opal Spofford, the star of the family albums, and who was Preston Hanson, the sender of all those passionate letters to his beloved Vickie? His credits included appearances in "Gunsmoke," "Dynasty" and "Dallas."
"Dearest Vickie," he wrote in a 1946 letter, trying to resume contact after a rough patch in the relationship.
"With the passage of time I find your absence more and more depressing," the letter continued. "This is really a strange new experience for me - I find that it's not an ache of the heart that I feel but instead a mental display. It is my belief that, for the first time in my life, I am loving with my soul instead of with this foolish heart."
"Seriously," Kerry said to herself. "This guy could write."
But whatever became of his marriage proposals? Occasionally Preston complained of his financial struggles. Both repeatedly found work as actors, but seemed to struggle along the periphery of Hollywood.
* * *
A big piece of the puzzle fell into place when Kerry discovered an online obituary for Opal Spofford, who died in 2009 in Melrose, Minn.
It listed film credits that matched those of Vicki Bakken - so Vicki Bakken was Opal Spofford's stage name. Ira Bakken had been her first husband, not her brother.
So, she once was, in fact, a lovely widow - a role she also played in the video for the 1989 Billy Joel hit song, "We Didn't Start the Fire," in which her character placed coins in the eyes of her dead husband when he was lying in a coffin.
Later in life she married a man named Bill Pargment in Hollywood, but returned as an elderly widow to be near family in Minnesota.
Preston Hanson had died a year earlier, in 2008, having married an actress named Lorraine Hanson. He had been a decorated combat pilot in World War II, and flew 65 combat missions in Europe.
The revelation that Preston and Vickie hadn't married despite the years of hot and cold romance wasn't the Hollywood ending that Kerry had been hoping to discover.
"It was so fun to try to figure the puzzle out," she said. "I was disappointed just because of the love letters and the way they spoke to each other."
Then again, she realized that many romances end up fading with the passage of time.
She was able to contact two of Opal Spofford's nieces, who were able to explain that the memorabilia had been kept by an old friend of their aunt's, the woman, an antique collector, who had owned the old house the Conlins bought in Kathryn.
Although thrilled to learn of the existence of the photo albums and other keepsakes, they haven't yet reclaimed them. For the time being, the Conlins remain the custodians of the box and the memories it contains.
"If nobody wants this I'm going to set up a little museum in my house," Kerry said. "I love old."