Forty-thousand letters; 40,000 members.
For 40 consecutive years Lois Bouton has written letters to Coast Guard men and women, earning her the nickname the Coast Guard Lady.
“I write well over a 1,000 Coast Guard Day cards a year,” said Bouton.
Bouton, a native of Lake County, Ill., and current resident of Rogers, Ark., reported to boot camp Sept. 3, 1943 at the Biltmore Hotel in Palm Springs, Fla. After a month of basic training, she then spent five months in radioman school in Atlantic City, N.J., where she learned to translate Morse code.
“It wasn’t as ritzy as it sounds,” Bouton recalled. “When I heard the sound of the transmitter, it reminded to poke with my finger,” Bouton said. When I used a pencil it took a little longer. By the time I was ready to write it down, they were two or three letters ahead.”
While in radioman school, she met her husband, who served in the Army, on the Boardwalk. After World War II, she taught first grade at a school north of Chicago in Lake County, while her husband was a barber at a veterans hospital near Naval Station Great Lakes Training Center. In her spare time, she wrote to family and friends and visited patients at the hospital who were in the Vietnam War.
In 1974 she and her husband moved to the northwest corner of Arkansas. It was here that Bouton became the Coast Guard Lady. Missing the contact with veterans at the hospital, she wrote to Coast Guard units in Alaska and asked them for addresses of isolated stations and lighthouses.
On Coast Guard Day, Aug. 4, 1974, Bouton sent cards and letters to friends stationed with her during the war. To this day, she stays in contact with those shipmates.
Her days of writing then began each day as they do now. First, she reads the newspaper, works a crossword puzzle and a couple cryptoquotes. Then, she writes letters. In the afternoon, she either reads or writes more letters. Come evening, when the television is on, she solves a jigsaw puzzle.
After four decades of writing letters to countless Coast Guardsmen across the country, Bouton has just one wish: A legible signature.
“I can read most of the letters, but I can’t read their signature; they don’t put it on the envelope, so I don’t know who I’m writing to,” said Bouton.
Just about everyone in the Coast Guard knows who she is. Of all the letters and cards she receives from both active and reserve members, it’s the people who are out of the Coast Guard who write back to her the most.
“It’s quite satisfying. They thank me for opening the way for women – for all of the things they are able to do now,” said Bouton.
In 2009 shortly before Bouton turned 90, she requested a birthday card in return from her addressees. She received 600 birthday cards, and, of course, she wrote back to every one of them, noting that she had been sending them cards forever.
“After my 90th birthday, I felt like I had been to my own memorial service,” said Bouton.
She still hand-writes most of the letters. A few years ago her daughter gave her a computer, except Bouton only uses it to print letters when there are too many to reply to. Otherwise, she personally signs and designs each with great care. She inscribes the human touch. If she held an open house, visitors could tour a Coast Guard history museum with the very lighthouse replicas on the cover of their letters.
“I am always ready to write to the Coast Guard,” said Bouton.
Two stacks of reply letters tower her writing table near the entrance like bookend statues. Right behind the table, more letters grace the walls. Monuments of meticulousness, warm and authentic, just like its author. A pen, pencil and paper, no email, are all the tools she needs. She would still use a manual typewriter if they made them, just because it’s old fashioned like a sturdy, vintage rocking chair with sticky moonshine droplets on the armrests.
In an age of tweets limited to 140 characters, auto-signatures and sterile form letters, Bouton writes from her heart in the heartland of America.
Write on, Coast Guard lady. Write on.