HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- "Home is where the heart is" is a phrase that certainly applies to Anna Prillaman’s home on Monument Avenue in Henrico.
Prillaman is most happy relaxing in her Near West End house with her dog Alfie.
“It is like my passion project. When I first saw it I fell in love with it,” Prillaman said about her home. “I care about the house similar to the people I love. I love this place.”
Her 67-year-old Cape was bought with good bones. What Anna didn’t realize was her pride and joy also came furnished with a mystery.
During an early round of spring cleaning, she discovered a hidden panel leading to part of the attic.
“I realized there was a door. It is not a door that had a key or anything it was just latched at the top,” Prillaman said.
Inside a fortune stashed away by a previous owner.
“I am an 80s baby, so I watched 'Goonies.' So as I’m rummaging through the attic I’m thinking there could be treasure back here, could be a map, there could be gold coins,” she said.
It wasn’t gold nor a bag of cash, but two boxes stuffed with gems from a bygone time.
Hand-written letters. Hundreds of them sent to a young woman named Betty Sue in Richmond.
The correspondence in cursive reflects how we once communicated.
“There are no 'SMHs” or OMGs or LOLs.' It’s full sentences. Grammatically correct sentences. Isn’t that funny how that works,” Prillaman said.
Dozens of the letters were penned by a young man named Vance.
“I read one of those letters and it is absolutely a love story,” Prillaman said.
Judging by the contents, Vance was smitten with Betty who he met at John Marshall High School.
“It does pose a lot of questions just out of curiosity about their love story. Because it sounds neat,” Prillaman said.
A new romance was blossoming on the old pages.
“Hi Honey. How is my Baby getting along? When we’re not together I know just the right words that I would use in telling you everything. But when we’re together all I can think of is ‘I love you.’ Vance.”
Seventy years later Prillaman feels like she is invading Vance and Betty’s privacy.
“I think the reason it felt intrusive is that a letter written is between two people and two people only,” Prillaman said. “I thought I’m not sure I need to be the third party that puts my head and my eyes on that because it wasn’t meant for me to read.”
But Prillaman couldn’t bring herself to toss the bundle of missives.
“But upon glancing at these, it was clear [they] needed to be in the right hands and I needed to figure out how I was going to find that,” Prillaman said.
She turned to a most modern way of corresponding — social media.
“People love the story. Everywhere I go in town people are stopping me like, ‘Hey you wrote that post about the letters have you found the family yet?’” Prillaman said.
The Director of Athletics at Trinity Episcopal School wondered if the letters would go unclaimed.
“I think a lot of people put on their Sherlock Holmes hat and got to work,” she said.
Days later, that work paid off with a potential lead. With fingers crossed Prillaman reached out to a man named Dalton Long.
He lived 3,000 miles away in Portland, Oregon.
“I put my cell phone in an email and it wasn’t 30 minutes later and he texted me and said, “I would love them,’” Prillaman said.
Dalton Long knew Betty and Vance quite well. Dalton said the couple went from writing each other to exchanging vows. Their marriage lasted 50.
Dalton is their grandson.
“To me they were ‘B’ and Pop. But to the rest of the world they were Betty McGhee Long and Vance Herschel Long,” Long said.
The 30-year-old videographer grew up in Prillaman's house, but never knew about the secret stash of love letters.
“To add words to that time in their life is going to be incredible,” Long said.
With his beloved “B” and Pop now gone, cherished memories and a few keepsakes were all Dalton Long had of his grandparents, until now.
“I think it is so beautiful to connect on a human level with people that aren’t here with us anymore you know?” he said.
“I know that if I found letters from my grandparents on my mother's or father’s side. I would be sitting there in a pool of tears reading them and cherishing them. I hope that is what this family is able to do,” Prillaman said.
Anna Prillaman said tearing a page from Vance and Betty’s playbook could teach us all a lesson about the lost art of letter-writing.
“It is interesting the reach this story has gotten with people being interested in it. So everyone has that in them. Human connection matters. The past matters,” she said.
Dalton Young remains eternally grateful that Anna Prillaman saw the value in the written word.
“She was able to find something and find the other end of it,” he said. “And I think not only is it exciting for me but I hope it’s exciting for her to be able to unite me with a little piece of my past.”
This week Dalton’s mother who splits her time between Richmond and Florida picked up the box of letters. The letters will be sent to Dalton in Oregon soon.
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