CHICAGO — After almost 70 years, the letters written by a World War II sailor made the final leg of a mysterious journey when they were turned over to Dorothy Bartos Carlberg, their intended recipient.
Anticipation hung in the air as Martha Rodriguez, the current resident of 2713 S. Kolin Ave. in Chicago — the address of Bartos’ girlhood home — handed the fragile papers to the 85-year-old, who was surrounded by her four children. Everyone thought it would be Carlberg who might become teary holding a tangible piece of her past, back when she was the object of a young sailor’s affection.
Instead, it was Rodriguez who provided the lump-in-the-throat moment, relieved that her quest was complete. The mail — dated from July and August 1945 — had been delivered last month to the Little Village neighborhood address. Rodriguez had been searching for the rightful owner ever since.
“Every time I would read the letters, I would cry,” said Rodriguez, 38. “I was trying to hold myself together, but now I’m glad that she got them.”
The Tribune wrote about Rodriguez and her quest, prompting Carlberg’s children to step forward to say the letters were intended for their mother.
Carlberg, wearing blue nail polish and sparkly shoes, was unclear about all the fuss. But she had no trouble recalling a simpler time, when she was a vivacious 17-year-old in Little Village, where she’d write to servicemen she knew, including Al Fragakis, who was stationed in San Diego.
“We used to dance with them at the Aragon and the Trianon, too,” she said, referring to two Chicago-area ballrooms. “We called it wolfing.”
Decades later, she listened intently as one of her daughters relayed passages from Fragakis’ letters. They included stories about the hum-drum routine of Navy life, cartoons clipped from the newspaper, movie recommendations (“Anchors Away,” starring Gene Kelly) and sweet sentiments about how much he missed her.
Fragakis hasn’t been found, but it didn’t matter. The long-lost correspondence brought her some media attention, along with an outing from her assisted living facility near Madison, Wisconsin, along with an impromptu family reunion. The hand-off took place in the suburban Downers Grove home of her youngest daughter, Sue Lilly. Where the letters were for all the intervening years remains a mystery.
Another daughter, Sandy Jacobson, came from Champaign for the occasion and was pleased that her mother could have her “moment of glory,” she said. “It’s pretty interesting to get a different perspective on your mother...you see she had a whole different life you’re not aware of.” In an earlier interview, she had joked, “She always loved a guy in a uniform — and still does.”
When Carlberg was first told about the letters and Al Fragakis, she was quoted as saying, “He was a really nice guy. Not fast — my dad was very strict, but he liked boys in the military. He thought they were decent.” She added, “I wrote to a lot of boys in the service. We did it to keep their spirits up.”
Bartos — whom Fragakis affectionately called “Bugs” in his letters — ended up marrying Victor Carlberg on Aug. 19, 1950. They met at DePaul University in Chicago through a mutual friend. An industrial engineer for Campbell Soup, Victor Carlberg embraced everything from Cub Scouts to water skiing, his son Tim Carlberg said.
The Carlbergs had six children, five of whom survive and who range from 52 to 62 years old.
Victor Carlberg died in April 2012 after almost 62 years of marriage. “Even with her dementia, and his own health failing, he cared for her,” Tim Carlberg said. His father’s last goal, written on a board in his hospital: “To go home and love my wife,” Tim Carlberg said.
But that didn’t stop his wife from talking about the old days, when Little Village was a Bohemian neighborhood, and no shortage of boys came calling.
“She was hot. She was a model. We wondered how she ended up with my dad,” he joked.
On a more serious note, the Carlberg offspring said they were touched by Rodriguez’s efforts, calling her “a real blessing.”
“I wasn’t going to stop till I found her,” Rodriguez said.