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The legacy of the Manhattan 8-year-old who famously asked the New York Sun newspaper ‘Is there a Santa Claus’—and whose story is still told a century later—inspires students who learn every day in her former home.
In Sept. 1897, a little girl named Virginia O’Hanlon, who lived at 115 W. 95th Street in Manhattan, wrote a letter to The New York Sun. “Dear Editor,” it began, “I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”
The letter and its unsigned response ran in The Sun on September 21, 1987. Since then, it has been reprinted in over 20 languages and is arguably the most famous American editorial of all time. Frances Pharcellus Church’s answer that “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” is both whimsical and reflective, and reminds children and adults alike to believe in the magic of imagination. “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist,” wrote Church, whose identity as the column’s author was revealed after his death in 1906, “and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”
O’Hanlon grew up to become a teacher and principal for the New York City public school system, and received inquiries about her letter throughout her life. In every response, she would include a copy of the original editorial, which has itself been copied in tribute as a children’s story, in songs, and in movies.
115 W. 95th Street is now home to the Studio School, a preschool, elementary, and middle school founded in 1971, the year O’Hanlon passed away.
Virginia “grew up to become an educator and staunch advocate for children’s rights, believing that all children, regardless of social background, should have the same opportunities to learn,” head of school Janet C. Rotter said in a 2009 ceremony dedicating the school’s Virginia O’Hanlon Scholarship. The scholarship exists “so that we may educate children to take their place in the world with integrity, compassion, and a lifelong love for learning. It’s fitting that in keeping with Virginia’s life and ideals that Studio School scholarships, established in her name, will be need-based and go to students of merit.”
Studio School students present a plaque, now displayed on the building in honor of Virginia O’Hanlon, in 2009.
The school’s students participate in themed events every year around the holidays. “One year, we worked on children’s rights, one year we asked the children what they would say if they were to answer Virginia,” says Rotter.
“A circle has been completed and [my grandmother’s] life’s work continues,” said one of O’Hanlon’s granddaughters at the 2009 ceremony regarding the link between the school and the little girl who would grow to devote her life to teaching more children to ask questions. With O’Hanlon’s legacy commemorated at the building where she asked her now-famous question, her devotion to educating children lives on.
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