It is my belief that Robert Fink is the recipient of the very last Western Union telegram ever delivered.
“I knew I’d get distinction for something,” Fink, a 71-year-old clinical psychologist and professor of counseling at Oakland University, outside Detroit, said with a laugh when I told him of my assertion.
Notice that I said the very last telegram “delivered,” not “sent.” Fink received it on Jan. 2, but it was sent nearly 50 years earlier.
Fink’s telegram read: “Sorry we cannot be there to applaud when you get your diploma but our hearts and best wishes are with you. Love Dr. and Mrs. Fischman.”
The telegram congratulated Fink on his graduation from the University of Michigan. It was sent on May 2, 1969.
“I moved out of my apartment on May 1,” he said.
How does a telegram sent in 1969 get delivered in 2019?
Before we get to that, let us ponder the marvel that was the telegram. With its maiden transmission in 1844, humans could, for the first time, send each other near-instantaneous messages over vast distances. So, sort of like Twitter. But while Twitter is so cheap and painless it invites banality, a telegram was reserved for important messages, often hand-delivered by a sharply dressed young man.
Western Union shut down its telegram business in 2006.
“I don’t remember my family ever receiving a telegram,” Fink said. “The way I thought about them back then was that they were pretty unusual to receive. Usually, they were around something really important. And it was primarily important people who received them. Most of my impression of telegrams comes from when I would see them being sent in a movie.”
Telegrams rendered big news — good or bad — in a staccato style, the message stripped to its essence. The worst was a telegram informing you a loved one had died.
But back to Fink: In December he received an email from a woman in Ann Arbor, Mich., named Christina Zaske. She claimed to have a telegram for him and she wanted to know where she should send it.
“Frankly, I was pretty skeptical of the email,” Fink said. “I suspected there might be some kind of scam involved.”
He asked Zaske to send it to his office address.
Zaske, 38, works as the controller at a digital marketing agency, Icon Interactive. Her company may be on the cutting edge of technology and design, but it still needs some place to keep its paper. And Icon Interactive is not so rarefied and fancy that it would pass up a bargain. Some of the filing cabinets at Icon were apparently bought secondhand from the University of Michigan, Zaske said.
In December, she had to pull the bottom drawer out from one of these beat-up filing cabinets. She discovered a pile of paper that had fallen down there. It was mostly old paycheck stubs. But among the detritus was a yellow envelope.
“I opened it and looked at it,” Zaske told me. “I’m sentimental. I just thought, ‘I would want to have that.’ ”
So she went to Google and tracked down the recipient.
What arrived in Fink’s mailbox was a yellow envelope that said “A Greeting by Western Union.” The address of his college apartment — “316 East Madison Ann Arbor” — was visible through a cellophane window. Inside, printed in all capital letters on strips of paper glued to a mustard-colored page, was the message from the Fischmans.
Fink figures the telegram was left at the apartment. His landlord didn’t have a forwarding address. Somehow, it made it to that filing cabinet, where it sat for five decades.
Fink never thanked the Fischmans — parents of a high school friend named Arnie — for the telegram, not knowing they’d sent it. They’re both dead now.
Said Fink: “The irony of it is, I’ve only received one telegram in my life and I received it 50 years after it was sent.”
Fink said the telegram was a reminder of a different time in his life.
“I referred to it as the long arm of the past reaching out to me,” he said. “I found I kind of enjoyed the — how can I put it? — the stimulation of remembering myself at a much younger age and remembering the people who were important to me.
“I think as one gets older, one in general becomes more reflective of one’s life. Part of being a clinical psychologist is understanding that a great deal of self-reflection is very much how one grows and learns and continues to stay vital and fresh.”
The 50-year-old telegram still had a message, just not the one it was sent with.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.