I’m not a Mormon. But when I stumbled upon some old love letters written by a Mormon widower, I was compelled to seek out his descendants and share this precious family treasure with them. It was a journey that touched my heart in ways I could never have imagined.
Almost 10 years ago, when my youngest children were still at home, I went to the Deseret Industries thrift store looking for items to help them with a school project. I can’t even remember what the project involved, but during the course of the shopping trip, I bought an old suitcase. When I brought it home, I found the lining was torn, and hidden inside were two old letters. No envelopes, just old yellowing paper with typewritten German. The dates were May 1937 and June 1937. There was also an address in Salt Lake City, Utah. I found them fascinating, but at that time in my life I was a working mom, and they fell on my priority list just above rearranging my sock drawer. I filed them away and forgot I had them.
Unraveling a Mystery
After more than two decades as a television anchor and reporter in eastern Idaho, I retired last year and became a full-time writer. One day, I was procrastinating while having major writer’s block, so I started aimlessly going through old photos and files. That is when I came upon the letters again. I put some of the text into Google Translate and found that they were letters written by a man to a woman he was obviously trying to woo.
Some of the translations didn’t make sense, so I decided to contact my friend Diane, whose brother has lived and worked in Germany for years. I asked her if she would contact him to translate the letters. I scanned them and emailed them off, and a couple weeks later I received the letters back in English. As I read them, I felt like I was eavesdropping on a man so deeply in love that he was willing to completely open himself up to pain. In the letter, he speaks of losing his first wife and how that loss devastated him. And he speaks of a future where he can love and receive love again.
The letter was signed R. Stoof. I could tell from the many references to the gospel, missionaries, and eternal love that these people were most likely members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When I googled R. Stoof with Salt Lake City and LDS, I found information on a man named Reinhold Stoof, who was a German convert to the Church and was one of the first mission presidents in South America. He was a former member of the German Imperial Army and had seven children with his first wife, Ella (whom he mentions by name in the letters). She died in 1937, and Reinhold remarried. His second wife was named Maria, and they had a daughter. I also found the 1940 census that shows Reinhold and Maria living at the address that is on the letters along with eight children.
I decided to go further and see if I could find any other information on the children of Reinhold Stoof. I started with his youngest daughter, Irene. I searched for her name and found an Irene Stoof still living in Utah. I kept looking and found an article that revealed Irene is also a writer.
In 1984, in the Utah Historical Quarterly, Irene published a memoir called “The Memory Box.” It describes her life as the daughter of German immigrants living in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the challenges she faced when it came to accepting and being proud of her culture and heritage in a place and time where being German was seen negatively. The story was well written, and as I read it, I became intrigued at the possibility of meeting Irene.
To further my research, I did what every respectable writer and researcher would do. I went to Facebook. I plugged in “Stoof,” but nothing came up that was helpful. So I decided to plug in “Pearmain.” Several names came up, and one of them was in Utah. I clicked on Kris (Pearmain) Clements’s profile and sent her a message asking if she was related to Reinhold Stoof. Within an hour I got a message back, “Yes!!! He is my grandfather! How do you know him?”
I told her the story of finding the letters and that I thought they might be written to Maria. Kris wrote back, “Oh my gosh! He did! He married my grandmother!” We exchanged several more messages, including one in which she said she had called her mother, Irene, and she was crying happy tears. Then the awkward question came up.
She obviously wanted the letters and wondered if I still had them or if I had given them to the Church. I told her that I’d had a conversation with my friend at the public affairs office about selling the letters to the Church, but I still had them. So there was my quandary: See if I could profit off this cool find or give this woman a priceless piece of her family’s past. I had no connection to these letters. It wasn’t my family. I’m not Mormon. I do have a lot of German in my blood, but was that enough to endear me into just giving this all away?
Making a Connection
Right about this time, two of my daughters gave birth and kept me busy with the joys and chaos of babies and keeping life going for the other members of the family. I had put the letters aside for the moment, but I couldn’t help thinking about them and the story of Reinhold and Maria. It was then that I realized the reason I connected to their story was because it closely mirrored my own. When I met my husband, I was a widow with five children. My husband never had children. As I thought about the choice Maria made and the life and love she gave to Reinhold and those seven children, I appreciated my own husband and the joy he brought to my family even more.
I was holding my granddaughter one day and watching her sleep when I finally grasped the simple joy of what those letters brought to me regarding the meaning of family. I thought more about my life and about my own parents and grandparents and the stories I’ve been told about their lives, loves, and experiences. I watched my grandchildren and contemplated what I would be remembered for in their lives and in the lives of their children.
When my daily routine began to settle a bit, I wrote Kris an email and asked if I could meet with her mother. I wanted to speak to someone who knew these people firsthand. After months of trying to arrange a convenient time for us all, we ended up at an Applebee’s in Salt Lake City.
A Changed Perspective
Irene, who was then two years shy of 80, was as poised and beautiful as anyone decades younger. She and Kris were gracious but obviously anxious to see the family keepsake I still kept in a plastic zipper bag in my purse.
“Here they are,” I said, as I handed the yellowing papers to Irene.
She immediately unfolded them and began reading.
“Do you speak German?” I asked, surprised that she seemed to not need the translation copy I had included.
“Some,” she answered. “But I can read it much better.” Kris and I sat silently watching Irene scan the letters. Once in a while, she would smile to herself, and it was obvious she was hearing her father’s voice. The sight gave me chills. She looked up.
“Thank you,” she said. “I lost my father when I was only 17 years old. He was my hero. I looked up to him and admired him.
I was devastated when he died.”
She explained that he was a prolific writer who kept notes and stories about his conversion to the Church, his mission, and his military career as a lieutenant with the German Imperial Army. “My father was 52 when I was born. I felt like I didn’t get a chance to really know him, so I dedicated myself to learn more through his letters. I love learning about what he was like as a young man. This means so much,” she explained.
Irene and Kris had brought along huge books, neatly compiled with photos, writings, newspaper clippings, and documents about Reinhold Stoof. As I leafed through the plastic-covered pages, they informed me that Irene, the only child from the marriage of Reinhold and Maria, and two of the children from the first marriage, were the only ones still living.
Getting to Know Reinhold
I learned that the meeting of Reinhold and Maria had unintentionally happened through his first wife, Ella. When Ella was pregnant with their seventh child, she met Maria at the hospital where Maria worked as a nurse. Because they were both immigrants from Germany, they struck up a friendship, and Ella told Maria she wanted her to come and meet her other children someday. Maria agreed, but unfortunately, Ella died just nine months after giving birth to that child. However, Maria kept her promise and came to visit the other children.
Irene recalled that her mother brought candy for the children, and when Reinhold was standing on the porch and saw her coming up to the house, he said, “That is the lady I’m supposed to marry.” I told Irene and Kris about my own story of falling in love with someone who had no children while I had five, and how I related to both Reinhold and Maria and the incredible angst they must have experienced in making such a huge commitment. And just like my own life, it wasn’t long after their first meeting that Reinhold and Maria were married and began a new and happy life together.
Irene is proud of her German heritage and ancestry, but as I learned before from my research, it wasn’t always easy. She talked about how it wasn’t uncommon during the war to have people ask her if she and her family were Nazis or to feel awkward regarding her very German last name. Irene writes in her story, “The Memory Box,” about her older siblings eating their lunch away from other children to hide the dark pumpernickel bread that could out them as German, or the hesitation to bring friends to the home where they could overhear the language that made them different. What these people didn’t realize were the incredible risks Reinhold had taken as a member of the military in Germany actually fighting against the Nazis.
Reinhold’s conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was also an incredible risk to his safety. Soon after graduating from college, he was baptized on September 21, 1907.
“My father was one of the first people in Germany to be baptized in the Church,” Irene told me—a choice that could have risked his life.
In 1914, while serving in the German Imperial Army, Reinhold was wounded, and in 1918 he was captured by the British and became a prisoner of war. In 1920, he was called to serve a full-time Church mission in Germany. Two years later, he was called again to serve a special mission in which he toured the country giving illustrated lectures about the Restoration. It was in 1923 that he immigrated to the United States, where he worked as the editor for a German newspaper in Salt Lake City. He met and married his first wife, Ella, in 1925, and a year later was called to be the first mission president in South America. He, along with Ella, served there for nine years, growing the membership to a point that it was split into two missions—Brazil and Argentina. When they returned home to Salt Lake City, he worked as an accountant and proofreader for Deseret Book and eventually became a professor of German philosophy at the University of Utah. I learned that he was also a professional writer, a sought-after speaker, and a gifted musician.
A Final Gift
There were so many interesting stories and memories, I could have sat in that restaurant booth for hours, and when it came time to leave, I knew I had made two very special and dear new friends.
As we scooted out of the booth, Irene held the letters in her hand. “Can we pay you for these?” she asked.
It was a question that would have felt so different months ago when I started this journey, but at that moment, it actually hit me with humor.
“Of course not,” I said.
“Are you sure? You’ve given us such a gift,” she replied.
I nodded. “I know. But the gift I’ve received learning about this incredible love story and being able to share it with you is more of a treasure than you’ll ever know.” Irene hugged me. “Please stay in touch,” she said. “We have a special connection now.”
Kris also hugged me and agreed. “I feel my grandfather was here with us today. I never met him, but I feel him come alive when I hear the words in his letters.”
As I walked to my car without the hefty payout I had imagined months before, I watched the rain begin and waved at Irene and Kris as they pulled away. I realized what we gain from those in the past and what we choose to pass on to the future is the true treasure of this life. I smiled knowing that although I was empty-handed, my heart was incredibly full.
Lead image courtesy of Brenda Stanley, other pictures courtesy of the Stoof Family
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 edition of LDS Living. Find other great stories about Tom Christofferson's journey as a gay member of the Church or the Saints in Zambia in this new issue.