Whatever Happened to the Rich Little Poor Girl?
Catching up with Eddie Ogan, author of “The Rich Family in Church”
by Kimberly Claassen
“All my life, I’ve been able to find something funny in anything that happened.” So says Eddie Ogan.
And most things were. But her story of a childhood Easter was a slight miscalculation. The story she wrote to make people laugh, made them cry. As she copied the letter with that story in it, folded and stamped it, sending it around the world to missionaries who could use a laugh in their day, she never guessed its bittersweetness would give pause to millions of readers worldwide for years to come.
The Rich Little Poor Girl
“We kids had such a happy life that we felt sorry for anyone who didn’t have our Mom and Dad for parents [Dad died several years before the Easter story] and a house full of brothers and sisters and other kids visiting constantly,” Eddie wrote. “We thought it was fun to share silverware and see whether we got the spoon or the fork that night. We had two knives that we passed around to whoever needed them. I knew we didn’t have a lot of things that other people had, but I’d never thought we were poor.”
This slice of Eddie’s childhood, set in 1946, has become known as “The Rich Family in Church.” Written in a letter to missionaries in 1990, it took on a life of its own and still circulates in magazines, books (Chicken Soup for the Golden Soul), and Web sites (Google.com pulls up 100 links to her story—including translations in German and Indonesian). Other than some versions mistaking Eddie for a boy (her name is pronounced like the male name, “Eddy”), the story has remained intact.
Eddie (Smith) Ogan, the sixth of seven children, who found out at age 14 that she was “poor” is now 72. She and her husband, Phil, live on Social Security. They clean the grounds and bathrooms at the Northeast Washington Fair; the Colville, Washington, Father’s Day Rodeo; and Town and Country Days at the next town over.
Are you thinking that poor girl became even more poor? Then you don’t know the end of that Easter story, and you don’t know Eddie Ogan.
Growing Up “Poor”
“We didn’t have much, but everything we had was shared with everybody else,” Eddie says. “If any kid needed a place to stay, we took him in. If anybody didn’t have clothing, Mom would do everything she could to come up with something for them.”
With bounty to share, it never occurred to Eddie that they didn’t have enough. Perhaps that explains why she and her husband have 13 children—12 of them adopted—and have fostered 77 children.
For Eddie, the dozen-plus-one children are an unexpected fulfillment of childhood determination.
“When I grow up, I’m going to have 12 children,” she’d tell her mom repeatedly. “And they’re going to be red and yellow, black and white.” That was Eddie’s favorite song: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white….” It made sense to her that all would be in one family. Her family.
“So my mother spent years and years telling me I would grow up to marry a white man, we would have white children, and I wouldn’t want a dozen of them.”
By the time Eddie and Phil had 12 children, they indeed had red and yellow, black and white: six Korean (two of them half-black), three American Indian, three Caucasian. And Eddie’s mother wondered why she’d wasted so many years trying to convince Eddie differently.
In truth, neither the fostering nor the adoptions were exactly in Eddie and Phil’s long-range plans. When on their eighth adoption, their caseworker asked how many children they planned to adopt.
“We never planned to adopt,” Phil told her. “But I was raised without anyone telling me I was loved. So, if it’s a matter of another child not having anyone to tell them that they’re loved, well, I do love them.”
In particular, Phil wanted to love Korean children.
A highly decorated serviceman during the Korean War, Phil served in Korea six years, including three years during occupation and 20 months during peace talks.
“He had a lot of nightmares about babies that were lying alongside the road that they couldn’t do anything about,” Eddie says. “It bothered him that so many children were fathered by American servicemen and weren’t socially acceptable in Korea. So when the first Korean children came over, we wrote to see if there was any way we could adopt Korean children.”
They didn’t care if the child was male or female, handicapped or not. “We got our daughter Suzie when she was two and a half. Our doctors here told us we should send her back to the orphanage because she was so emotionally upset that she would never be normal. Every time you made a move by her she would throw her hands over her head and lean forward, trying to protect herself.” Though it took a year before anyone could move near Suzie without her dropping to the floor, by the time she entered kindergarten, she was as eager as any other child.
Suzie was their third adopted child. When she and her two sisters begged for a baby brother, Eddie told them they didn’t have enough money to adopt a baby brother. “They prayed that God would give them a baby brother,” Eddie says. “I should not have been able to have children, but I had Timothy.”
With three children in the house and one on the way, they got word of another child. Tom was crippled by polio, paralyzed from the waist down.
“I felt that we couldn’t afford him at that time,” Eddie says. “I talked to everybody. I went to everybody I could think of who might possibly be interested in adopting him. I couldn’t believe that nobody was interested. Finally, we decided that we would adopt him because nobody else would.”
While in the process of adopting Tom, Tim was born. Then the roof started leaking. They had to take the money they’d borrowed for the adoption to put a new roof on the house. They couldn’t afford Tom, after all.
“For six months, my husband said he didn’t even want me to say anything about Tom because it bothered him so much,” Eddie says. “Then on Christmas Eve, the Lord spoke to him and told him that if he adopted Tom, He would always take care of us—we would never go without.”
They had just paid off Suzie’s airplane ticket, so they could again borrow money from the bank—this time, for Tom’s ticket. “He was four-and-a-half years old,” Eddie says. “He was the same size as our 8-month-old son. He weighed the same amount. He came to us in a box. They had him in a cardboard box with a pillow in front of him so he wouldn’t fall over in the box.”
They were told Tom would never walk, but “after a great deal of prayer, he got feeling in his legs,” Eddie says. “One leg, that was so terribly short, grew longer. He stood alone for the first time on Mother’s Day. Thinking back, that, to me, is one of the biggest high points in my life—when Tom stood alone for two seconds on Mothers Day.”
The only remnant of those early days for Tom, now a successful businessman in his late 40s, is a limp.
In 1961, Eddie had those first five children at home—seven years and younger—when she took three days off for a church conference. She was unsuspecting when she picked up a booklet listing the 40 or so missionaries within their church district. The divine nudging took her by surprise.
“I felt that the Lord spoke to me and said He wanted me to write to all these missionaries,” Eddie says. “Immediately, I told the Lord, ‘I couldn’t do that. I haven’t even been to Bible school.’ These were missionaries. They’re just two steps under God. The Lord then said, ‘They don’t need your theology. They need your sense of humor.’”
With five children, Eddie had plenty of material. Her first letter brought a response from a family in India.
“They wrote back and said that when they’d gone to India, there was this elderly missionary in his seventies,” Eddie explains. “He was retiring and going home. They asked him, as new missionaries on the field, what to do. They were so disappointed because the only thing he said to them was, ‘Find something to laugh about every day, and you’ll be successful. If you don’t, India will kill you.’
“They thought this was stupid advice. He’d been there 40-plus years, and they thought he would have some great words of wisdom. They said then that the longer they were there, they realized it was actually the best advice anyone had ever given them: to find something to laugh about every day. That’s what my letters are supposed to be for. To make people laugh.”
Reaching back into her childhood—or grabbing material from her present-day mothering—Eddie wrote at the beginning of each month. One missionary told her, “The only thing that has kept me going all these years is your false teeth letter.”
Missionary children around the world came to know her as Aunt Eddie, though they’d never met her. The 40 missionaries on Eddie’s original list sent her letters on to other missionaries. The list grew. Missionaries retired, and children grew up but asked to remain on her list. New missionaries replaced the retiring missionaries. The list grew.
The first year, Eddie hand-wrote each letter. The next year, 1962, she moved to a duplicating process using heavy ink carbon paper. It was slow but—since it was faster than handwriting—an improvement.
In 1963, Eddie was ready to take up her church’s offer of using its memeograph machine. They loaned her the stencils. She cut out the letter at home, then took it to the church office to print.
With each letter, Eddie enclosed a small surprise: stamps, Kool-Aid, or gum; whatever she found that month that fit inside the envelope. They’re “like a box of Cracker Jack,” one missionary said. “There’s a prize in every envelope.”
No More Letters
Those letters ended in 1979, when a new secretary and a new pastor entered the church office, and the office equipment was restricted to church use.
“We [took the letter] to the print shop,” Eddie says. “It was just plain more money than we could squeeze out of our budget. There was no way we could pay. I bawled for a couple days and then thought, ‘Well, maybe that time is through.’”
In the meantime, Eddie and Phil had adopted several more children and begun foster parenting.
“I was raised with so much love and affection that I felt sorry for the ones that didn’t have it,” Eddie says. When the youngest of their seven children entered kindergarten, “I was home all alone,” she says. “I knew we couldn’t afford to adopt more kids. The house was empty, and I thought I had a lot of love to give.”
Children from age 17 down to infancy stayed under their roof; four foster children were ultimately adopted into the Ogan family. By the time Phil and Eddie let their foster parent license expire in 2002, 77 children had stayed with them.
Busy with her children and foster children, Eddie had one more reason to think her letter-writing days were over. In 1979 she found out she had cancer. For the second time. The first time, in 1965, resulted in a hysterectomy. This time Eddie had an inoperable brain tumor.
“I’ll go home, and take care of my kids,” she told the doctor. “If it’s the Lord’s time for me to die, I’ll die. If not, I’ll live.” Two months later, the tumor was gone.
In 1984 the battle broke out in new territory. A malignant growth in her kidney ruptured the organ; cancer spread through her system. This kind of cancer had to be surgically removed—and that was impossible.
“The doctor told us, ‘If there are any dreams, you need to do it now,’” Eddie says. “We had always dreamed that when my husband retired, we’d move to eastern Washington and build a log cabin in the mountains on a creek.”
Phil quit his job, and the family, including several foster children, moved to a spot on Clugston Creek in the Gillette Mountains of eastern Washington. They built their log cabin.
Eddie’s new pastor was worried about her as she became thinner and thinner. “He didn’t know I had cancer,” Eddie says. “When people know you have cancer, they don’t act normal. They think you’re dying, so they hardly talk to you normally. So I didn’t tell anyone. We knew that when it got a little further along, we would call the welfare office and say they’d need to find another home for our current foster children.”
They moved into their cabin on a Sunday in September 1985 and went to church that evening. “The pastor preached a sermon explaining that no one knows how long they have to live,” Eddie says. “The doctor may say you have only a year to live—you may still be around in 20 years. The pastor wanted people who were willing to dedicate the rest of their lives to God, no matter how long they had to live.
“I rushed up to the altar where I told the Lord I might have three months left. ‘I’ll do whatever You want me to do, whatever time I have left of life is yours. I want to give it totally to You.’ “
Now at age 72, Eddie Ogan has no problem telling people her age nor the fact that, at her height of 6 feet, she weighs 238 pounds. She’s healthy and thankful for it. “The Lord has given me the strength I need for whatever I do,” she says. “Every day I have is a gift from Him.”
Back in the Saddle Again
In 1988, Eddie headed out on her second missionary trip—a month-long circuit to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and China. She kept running into missionaries who knew only her signature. “They’d gasp and say, ‘I thought you’d died 10 years ago!’ Eddie says. They begged her to start writing again.
Then Dave Ellis, the child of missionaries and now a missionary himself, came to Eddie’s town for a conference. Upon meeting Eddie, he added his plea.
“I was just telling my wife how we always waited for Aunt Eddie’s letters to come,” he told her. “When you sent gum, we’d chew it until it was out of flavor, then keep the wrapper to sniff.” If only their daughters had an Aunt Eddie, as well, he pined.
“Aunt Eddie made us feel special and wanted, and we felt we knew her although we had never met her,” he said.
He urged her to begin writing again. “After all, receiving letters from home is part of what being a missionary is.”
Eddie wrote a letter the following month and hasn’t quit since. Her letters carry the addresses of 200 missionaries and missionary kids.
Sharing the Wealth
In 1946, as a widow and three young daughters stared at the money they had earned for the poor family scattered across their own floor, silence entered the usually chatty home.
What redeemed this story for Eddie and her sisters in 1946 continues to redeem readers today. The young family, newly poor while holding the most money they’d ever seen, trudged to church the next week. A missionary visiting from Africa told of poor people who needed the church’s help. When the pastor decided to take a special offering, this family smiled for the first time in a week and promptly deposited the envelope with $87 into the offering plate.
The missionary was delighted. The offering of a little more than $100 was much more than he expected from this small church. His words, “You must have a rich family in this church!” may have brought a pleased—or perhaps confused—smile to the faces of the congregation that day. But for one small family, they were words of life.
“Though the minister had said we were poor, the missionary said that we were rich,” Eddie tells. “We believed the missionary.”
So now Eddie and Phil live as the rich family they are: Social Security meets their needs. Any other money they bring in, they turn around and send out again. The $1,000 for cleaning the grounds and bathrooms at fairs and rodeos buys copies of The Book of Hope, distributed to children and youth worldwide. Eddie’s job of agricultural surveys contributes to projects such as shoes for orphans in Siberia, material to make rag dolls for orphans in Japan, and postage for her monthly letter.
Because that letter will continue to go out.
“Unless the Lord tells me to quit writing, I’m not going to quit writing now,” Eddie says. “I quit for the wrong reason to begin with. I didn’t pray about it. I just quit. I expect to write every month until I’m dead or have Alzheimer’s. I firmly believe with all my heart that the Lord will provide whatever I need.”
(found at Mikey’s Funnies, go there to read several responses to the original story and an interesting discussion about the difference between poor and broke, and how to help her present ministry)