On Journalistic Curiosity: Down the Rabbit Hole With Dan Barry

On Journalistic Curiosity: Down the Rabbit Hole With Dan Barry

“In 1990, Jack became engaged to Merlyn ‘Lynn’ Johnson, a Rutland Town native, and they shared a loving commitment for 25 years, which included traveling, visiting with friends and, of course, playing golf.”

After two more hours of rooting about and leaving messages as far-flung as California, I called a telephone number in Rutland that seemed to have potential. The woman who answered said her name was Lynn Johnson. I stammered to explain the nature of my call.

Finally, after describing the photograph and inscription, I concluded, “And I think this little girl … is you.”

“Yes,” the woman said, “it is.”

Ms. Johnson was taken aback by my call. How did a photograph of her as a child wind up inside an old copy of Steffens’s autobiography, and how did that copy wind up in the library of The New York Times? I shared what little I knew: only that a note on the book’s inside flap indicated that it was donated to the library in 1996.


Lynn Johnson at her home in Rutland, Vt., on January 25.

Jacob Hannah for The New York Times

She then told me what had happened in the nearly 83 years since that photograph was taken. But first: The photograph’s information is incorrect. She was born in 1933, not 1934.

The daughter of farmers, she went to the one-room Mill Village School, graduated from Rutland High School and studied at what was then the Green Mountain Junior College, in Poultney, Vt.

Ms. Johnson married a dentist, worked as a medical secretary and lab technician, then stayed at home to raise their two daughters. After the divorce, she met Jack Shackelford through friends. The relationship had stamina, the two of them splitting their time between Vermont and Florida.

“We were engaged for about 25 years,” she said.

A few years ago, they both developed lymphoma — “though not the same brand,” she noted. “I took care of him until the end.”

Now, she said, “I’m just dealing with heart problems.”

Ms. Johnson no longer goes to Florida. Her daughters and two grandchildren live in Maine. And yes, she would like very much to have that photograph — a black-and-white bit of serendipity, hidden in a book hidden in a library hidden in The New York Times.

Oh, and the former Merlyn Della Davis remembered without hesitation: Her dog’s name was Skippy.

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