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THIS HOLIDAY CARD CARRIED A POWERFUL MESSAGE OF FRIENDSHIP AND GRATITUDE

A growing number of folks seem to have opted out of sending holiday cards. They claim they don't have the time or it costs too much money. Some figure they'll throw a ho-ho-ho and a greeting on their e-mail and be done with it.

But I think cards are still a nice custom, and when I get them I'm always happy if pictures of my friends' pets or kids, personal notes or newsletters come along, too.

For more than 20 years, I have included with my own cards a homemade cutout ornament.

I was opening my mail the other day when a dark-green cutout of an angel aloft fell out of one envelope.

Uh-oh, I thought. My illegible handwriting on the envelope must have rendered one of my cards, with the angel, "undeliverable: return to sender." But on closer inspection, I saw a small yellow note. It said, "I found this among Bill's things after he died."

On the angel was my own printing, "I am Bill's guardian angel."

The card had been sent to me by Bill's parents, who live out West.

Actually I didn't know Bill very well, but at the University at Buffalo, where we both worked, our paths crossed from time to time. He was a straightforward kind of guy who said what he thought. But his candid way of dealing with people and life hid a generous heart and spirit -- especially toward kids and young people and just about anybody he knew who needed a hand up -- not a handout.

When I first found out about some of his good deeds, quite by accident, I told him I knew about his secret life as a caring, generous person.

"If you tell anybody," he warned me, "I will deny everything."

I never let the cat out of the bag.

Bill was not his real name. He didn't look like anybody's idea of an angel -- guardian or otherwise. He was always in jeans and casual attire. He believed, I'm sure, that people could be more reliably evaluated by what they were like inside their skin.

Bill was certainly more organized than Clarence, George Bailey's lovable angel in the holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life." But he and Clarence did share a kind of offbeat sense of humor. And he seemed to have cut the clutter from his life, focusing on only those things he truly thought were important.

He not only gave freely of his time to student projects but secretly provided monetary wherewithal. Hearing that a friend was going through tough financial times brought on by family illness, he "arranged" for help to be provided. He frequently gave up his share of compensation so that more students could receive funding for research projects.

And as a college student years ago, and half a nation away from here, he had spent uncounted hours in the hospital room of a young person who had become paralyzed, teaching him to use eye blinks as a code for yes and no.

A few years ago, Bill was diagnosed with cancer. He sent a straightforward Bill-like memo to people he thought he should notify: "The bad news is I have cancer. The good news is I don't have to decide what to do when I retire. Don't ask how I am. I am sick."

Many of us who got the memo didn't know how to respond. I found a couple of funny cartoon books on the political campaign of the moment and sent them to him. And since a get-well card clearly didn't fit, I made one of my cutout angels and wrote on it: "I am Bill's guardian angel," with my name and the date.

After he died, I learned that he wanted "any donations, if anybody wanted to do anything," sent to a ranch in his native state, where kids and teens at loose ends in life were taken care of. It didn't surprise me a bit.

I sent a check and soon received a copy of their newsletter. Pictures showed smiling, happy young people and comfortable homes headed by houseparents.

Bill's parents also wrote to thank me for the donation. But their holiday card and the angel were a surprise this year.

Studying the dark-green homemade cutout, I thought this must have meant something special to him in order for him to have saved it. He was not a pack rat.

Maybe he had hung onto it as a tangible reminder that a "guardian angel" in another time and place watched over him. Maybe it occurred to him in a flash of insight that he had been one to others.

I wrote Bill's parents a note when I got their card, thanked them for the angel and enclosed another one.

I made another angel with Bill's name on it and sent it with a note and a check to the place out West.

Maybe, I ventured, they could have a guardian angel tree -- and if they did, they could put one on the tree for Bill.

I hope the people who have decided holiday cards aren't worth the time, effort or money will think again. It doesn't have to be a gigantic project. But it's good to send a note or a card to someone who helped you over the rough spots this year.

Even guardian angels need a little encouragement sometimes.

MARY BETH SPINA is a Clarence writer.

For writer guidelines for columns appearing in this space, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Opinion Pages Guidelines, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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