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Margaret Veglahn’s Award Winning Letter to Harper Lee


Graphic by Caroline Chisholm 

Then 11-year-old Margaret Veglahn leans against the wall in the green room next to the parking lot at the Jewish Community Center. She is conversing with her fellow cast members a couple hours before their last performance of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” in April of 2014, she’s not even in her Scout costume yet. Veglahn hears a quick, sharp boom in the parking lot, but everyone brushes it off as a car backfiring, cracking jokes about it.

A couple minutes later, the stage manager runs in, blood splattered on his white shirt. He tells the cast they were not allowed to leave the room. Veglahn, now a sophomore, was among the only three kids on the show, the rest were adults.

“We just heard gunshots and saw blood, but they wouldn’t tell us what was happening,” Veglahn said.

For the next three hours, Veglahn and the cast hid in the locked room, and then were stuck in the room for another five, not hiding. She was unable to contact her family members, because she was too young to have a phone, but after eight hours she was released and able to meet up with her mom at a nearby Panera.

April 13, 2014, was the day of the play and the day of a shooting at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park. The domestic terrorist attack was committed by 73-year-old white neo-nazi, Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. He shot and killed two people at the JCC and later received the death sentence.

A year after the shooting, in her 7th grade English class, Veglahn wrote a letter to Harper Lee, author of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” as part of a Library of Congress writing contest to submit a letter to an author that changed your life. The book served as a distraction from Veglahn’s racing emotions during the shooting.

“There were copies of [To Kill a Mockingbird] all over the room…so I picked up the book and I [have] read it plenty of times, but I was freaking out and I thought it would take my mind off of it,” Veglahn said. “But when you are in a situation that is that high pressure and crazy, it [gave] a new meaning to a book I had read a billion of times before.”

Veglahn wrote the letter in a mere 15 minutes, using the writing as therapy. She thought her English teacher and a random judge would be the only people to read it, so she was able to make the letter personal. She did not even let her mom read it at first, claiming it was too personal.

“It started as an assignment that we had to do in class, but I kind of ran with it and it turned into something really important to me and I put more into it than I thought I would,” Veglahn said. “It became really personal, because I thought my english teacher would be the only one that would read it.”

The letter went on to win the Kansas state competition the same year she wrote it, in 2015, and moved on to the national competition, where Veglahn did not place.

“[The Prairie Village Post] wrote an article about me winning the state contest and published a copy of the letter, and all of the sudden I would walk down the hallway and a teacher I didn’t even know would talk to me about it,” Veglahn said.

She thought that was the end of it. Until the contest runner emailed Veglahn asking for permission to use her letter in “Journey’s,” a book by the Library of Congress that is a compilation of their fifty favorite letters from one million received from the competition Veglahn participated in.

The book is now available across the nation in bookstores such as Barnes and Noble, where Lisa recently bought a copy.

“[To Kill A Mockingbird] has always been a special book in our house,” Lisa said. “The events at the JCC were difficult for all of us, so I was pleased that she was able to use that experience through her writing, and I was proud of her that it was recognized that way.”

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Mac Newman

Mac Newman is a senior at East and is on his 3rd year on Harbinger as a copy editor and staff writer. When not in the J-room Mac also does DECA and SHARE. He enjoys watching and playing all sports especially soccer and golf, as well as Chick-fil-a. He hopes to influence the new staff members and improve the Harbinger even more. Read Full »

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