HOUSTON – Audrey Hoffman’s hesitant first letter, written on a college dorm mate’s dare, apologized for seeming “bold and wrong.”
The recipient, William Lawson, a seminarian and neophyte preacher in rural Kansas who had resigned himself to life as a celibate missionary, was surprised and charmed.
“Lady,” he wrote back two days later, “the fact that you wrote at all is flattery of the most ego-boosting brand!”
Thus began a remarkable courtship by mail that, from September 1952 to January 1954, resulted in the exchange of more than 600 love letters between the Nashville, Tenn., college girl and the future founding minister of Houston’s Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church.
In January 1954, Hoffman, who had spurned the proposals of five previous suitors, and Lawson were wed. Prior to the nuptials, they had met face to face only eight times.
On Wednesday, the Lawsons, now the parents of four adult children, will donate their correspondence to the archives of the African American Library at the Gregory School and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, both arms of the Houston Public Library.
The letters, Gregory archivist Vince Lee said, provide rare insight into Lawson, a longtime Houston religious and social leader who, in the 1960s, was a confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“They highlight and spotlight an aspect that the public doesn’t get to see very often,” he said. “They offer a new dimension of him during the courtship of his wife.”
Audrey Lawson said she and her husband decided to donate the letters because they feared that, outside the guardianship of an institution, the correspondence eventually could be lost.
The Lawsons’ decision to make the letters public is supported by their children, said Cheryl Lawson, the couple’s second-oldest child.
“We have been charmed by their love letters,” she said. “We certainly admire them for putting the letters in the public realm. They consider themselves part of the community in a way most couples don’t.”
That the Lawsons wrote, and saved, the letters, said David Lowenherz, editor of The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Times, is “very touching.”
While modern-day effusions of tender emotion via Twitter or e-mail may be common, the medium simply is not as romantic as an old-fashioned letter, Lowenherz said.
“It’s more ephemeral,” he said. “It can get lost or deleted quickly, whereas something on paper for the most part stays.”
William and Audrey Lawson, now 82 and 79, respectively, grew up just blocks from each other in St. Louis. Both attended Tennessee State University and had friends in common. Until the advent of their correspondence, however, they remained strangers.
Audrey Lawson, studying to become a social worker, first got to know her future mate—by then a Kansas City seminarian—through missives he had written other women.
“A bunch of women who all knew him would get together to read his letters,” she said. “I had listened to his letters a couple of times. He could write cute letters. Someone dared me to write him, and, being a St. Louis woman, I accepted the dare.”
“I suppose you are wondering why I am writing to you,” her first letter admitted. “Well, truthfully, I don’t know. But it is something that I wanted to do for a long time, so I decided to carry through with the idea. I have often wanted to meet someone like you.”
Lawson responded that he found every sentence in her letter a compliment. She answered that he was a “great flatterer.”
“Shall I brand you as a ‘woman killer’?” she teased. “No, I don’t think that would fit you at all, so we will only call you ‘Bill.’”
“I had just about given up on getting married; I had expected to be a celibate missionary,” Lawson said recently. “Then this girl starts writing me these letters. Even without kisses or hugs, I had kind of a mental compadre. At some point, I found myself falling in love with a person I’d never met.”
His future wife found Lawson to be “a smart man” who didn’t drink or smoke.
“He would write me at 1 or 2 in the morning. He made sure he was writing me every week—every day at one point. … After a while, his letters and my letters clicked enough. I felt that maybe this was someone I was supposed to know.”
Audrey Lawson painstakingly wrote her letters longhand on sheets of lined stationery. Lawson responded with crisp, typewritten missives on paper that featured a pen and ink caricature of himself at the top. The drawings changed to reflect his moods.
The letters expressed unfettered joy and enervating loneliness. Midway through their correspondence, Lawson began dotting the “I” in his name, Bill, with a heart. Sometimes he unleashed pulpit-worthy lectures on the nature of love and marriage. At others, he spun webs of flowery prose.
“Thundering silence, the dank odor of my basement study, a rainbow of books lined stiffly on their shelves like soldiers at attention, the bleak pale light streaming over my typewriter from the gaping mouths of two gooseneck lamps which (have) become part and parcel of the art of some industrious spiders who has veiled their faces as if to fit this mournful place all this becomes alive, vibrant, when my duty is to write an answer to my friends old and new,” he wrote on Oct. 8, 1952.
Months passed before the couple’s first face-to-face meeting.
Lawson recalled peeking through the window of his future wife’s St. Louis family home, watching her, attired in a red corduroy suit, descend a stairway.
“I thought she was very cute,” he said. “She was pixieish. She had a radiant smile.”
The salutation of Lawson’s letters became “Dear Little Red.” As the epistolary relationship deepened, the salutation became “Greetings my little scarlet darling”; “Hello, little sunset-hued sweetheart”; and, once, “My vermilion Venus.”
A year into the relationship, the strain of separation became daunting.
“I never felt this way about anyone,” he wrote on Sept. 12, 1953. “Darling, never before. If you don’t come to me soon, I’m apt to lose my mind. I can’t even trust my own ability to walk in calm serenity. You’re getting such a bundle of tornadic emotions, Little Red, submerged though they may be beneath a calm exterior.”
The letter moved Lawson’s future wife to tears.
“It isn’t fair for you to suffer so much,” she responded the next day. “I promise that after Jan. 30, I’m yours until you tire of me. I plan to make you the happiest man alive.”
The Lawsons were married in St. Louis on Jan. 30, 1954. The bridesmaids wore pink with scarlet sashes.
The couple moved to Houston in 1960 after the minister accepted a position with Texas Southern University’s Baptist Student Union. Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, which now has more than 5,000 members, was started in his home with 13 members in 1962. His civil rights career was launched by the 1960 TSU student sit-ins at Houston lunch counters.
“I think we were a little bit shocked at how green we were coming into this marriage,” Lawson recalled. “She was a hip chick, had a lot of leadership roles. She knew I was kind of old-fashioned.”
Audrey Lawson confessed that initially she had hoped to “change” her new husband into someone more financially ambitious. With time came marital compromise.
“I came to love his ways,” she said, “because I loved him.”