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'Dear Mr. President ...'

Former Monroe woman's letter gets a reply, place in new book


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Long after completing elementary school, Jen Cline kept at the assignment of writing to the president of the United States.

Each time a new president was elected, she'd send him a little note, just as she'd done in second grade.

"It started with George Bush, the first one. He was the first president I wrote to," Mrs. Cline said. "It was a school project, but I kept writing."

In December, 2009, after watching Christmas at The White House, Mrs. Cline decided to write to President Obama. At the time, she and her family were living in Monroe, Mich.

The three-page letter was "sloppy" and handwritten on notebook paper. In it, Mrs. Cline told the President about the hardships she and her family faced, including job loss and undergoing cancer treatment without health insurance. She also mentioned that things were getting better for her and her husband and their two sons.

"They seemed so normal. The Obamas seemed like us," Mrs. Cline said. "It was like talking to a friend."

Mrs. Cline's letter and story, along with the stories of other Americans who wrote letters to President Obama, are featured in Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President. The book, released in October, was written by Eli Saslow, a staff writer at the Washington Post, who covers the President's life inside the White House.

"A president is so walled off from people in so many ways, because of scheduling and security concerns," Mr. Saslow said. "This is President Obama's way of staying in touch. One of the things he says about [the letters] is they help keep him sane."

Mrs. Cline didn't receive a response from any of the other three presidents she'd written and she didn't expect this time to be any different.

"I was just doing what I'd always done," Mrs. Cline said. "I wasn't expecting him to read it."

On a freezing cold Tuesday afternoon in January, 2010, Mrs. Cline opened her mailbox, expecting nothing more than the usual -- junk mail and bills. She and her husband, Jason Cline, were swimming in debt with bills from his defunct pool company and her medical bills.

Mrs. Cline was diagnosed with melanoma and basal cell skin cancer in 2008. She'd undergone chemotherapy without health insurance.

At first glance, the stack of mail looked like all the others, except for the large yellow envelope with a return address of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, D.C. 20500.

He'd read her letter.

Each day the White House staff sorts through about 20,000 letters and emails addressed to the President. Ten of the letters are placed in a purple folder and forwarded to President Obama, who reads all 10. Typically, he responds to one or two each day with a handwritten note to writers who offered well wishes, moving stories of hardship, and criticism, the book explains.

"The odds of your letter being picked is like winning the lottery," Mr. Saslow said.

Other stories in the book include that of a Texas teacher who believed Mr. Obama's policies were ruining the country, a Mexican-American woman who had to decide whether to stay in Arizona or leave because of the state's strict immigration policy, a woman from a Cleveland suburb who couldn't afford to pay her health-care bills when she got cancer, and a little girl from Covington, Ky., who attends the worst ranked elementary school in her district.

At the time she wrote the letter, Mrs. Cline and her husband had just gotten married and several months earlier she was diagnosed with skin cancer. Just before that she'd lost her job as a pharmacy tech at Farmer Jack. She was a full-time student at the local community college, studying nursing.

"It was difficult in every aspect," Mrs. Cline said. "I wasn't working. My husband was working but I still had to take care of the kids through chemo. It was a really hard time for us."

In that yellow envelope was a handwritten response to Mrs. Cline from the President himself. It was only two sentences long, but "it meant the world to me," Mrs. Cline said.

With almost half a million dollars in medical bills and hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt from Mr. Cline's shuttered pool installation company, the Clines were in over their heads. So, when an autograph dealer made them an offer for the President's letter that was too good to resist, Mrs. Cline knew she couldn't keep it.

"I had to [sell it]. For my family," she said.

The $7,000 they received for the letter allowed the Clines to move out of their duplex and into a house in an area with better schools for their sons, Brenden, 10 and Jayden, 4. They paid off some of Mrs. Cline's medical bills, which kept them out of collections, Mrs. Cline said.

The couple, who now lives in Woodhaven, Mich., kept a photo-copy of the letter, but nothing compares to the real thing, they said.

"I didn't want to sell it. My husband had to pry it out of my hands," she said. "But, I don't regret it. Selling the letter helped my family tremendously.

"So, thank you, Mr. President."

Contact RoNeisha Mullen at: rmullen@theblade or 419-724-6133.

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