John Cruitt, 62, spent decades tracking down his third-grade teacher.
He wanted to talk with Cecile Doyle about 1958 — the year his mother, who was seriously ill with multiple sclerosis, passed away.
Her death came just days before Christmas. Cruitt had been expecting to go home from school and decorate the Christmas tree.
"But I walked into the living room, and my aunt was there, and she said, 'Well, honey, Mommy passed away this morning.' "
Cruitt remembers seeing his teacher, Doyle, at his mother's wake.
"When I found out she died, I could certainly relate to that, because when I was 11, my own father died," Doyle tells Cruitt at StoryCorps in Monroe, N.Y. "And you just don't know how you're going to go on without that person."
When Cruitt returned to school, Doyle waited until all of the other children left the room at the end of the day, and told him that she was there if he needed her.
"Then you bent over and kissed me on the head. It was really the only time someone said to me, 'I know what you're feeling, and I know what you're missing,' " Cruitt says. "And I felt, in a very real way, that things really would be OK."
"Well, John, I really loved you as a student, and I'm so glad that I could be there with you for that time," says Doyle, 82.
Decades after his mother's death, when Cruitt became a teacher himself, he began to think more and more of Doyle.
"And I started to think to myself, here I am, with a memory of a teacher who changed my life, and I've never told her that," he says.
So, that's when he finally wrote a letter:
Dear Mrs. Doyle,
If you are not the Cecile Doyle who taught English at Emerson School in Kearny, N.J., then I'm embarrassed, and you can disregard the sentiments that follow.
My name is John Cruitt, and I was in your third-grade class during the 1958-1959 school year. Two days before Christmas, my mother passed away, and you told me that you were there if I needed you. I hope life has been as kind to you as you were to me.
God bless you, always. With great fondness,
Doyle says his letter, which arrived in February, could have not come at a better time. Her husband, who passed away this August, was struggling with Parkinson's disease.
"And I had just come home from the hospital, and I read this beautiful letter, and I just was overwhelmed," she says.
"Well the funny thing is, when I finally wrote to you again after 54 years, I typed the letter — I was afraid my penmanship wasn't going to meet your standards," Cruitt says as Doyle laughs.
"Well, after all this time, Mrs. Doyle, all I can say to you is ... thank you."
"John, what can I say — I'm just glad that we made a difference in each other's life."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon with Michael Garofalo.