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Kansas Man Who Lives Alone Receives 100+ Birthday Cards From Around The World

Hallie Sigwing
Willie Ricken's family likes to make a big deal about his birthday.

Realizing they wouldn't be able to help him celebrate his 94th birthday, Willie Ricken's family decided to send their love via the U.S. Postal Service.

Willie Ricken has lived in the same house in Garden Plain, Kansas, outside of Wichita, for more than 60 years. And every year on his birthday, his family likes to come together and make a big fuss about it.

“We’re all just very aware that our time with him is dwindling," says his granddaughter Hallie Sigwing, a wedding photographer in Kansas City. "So, especially since his 90th birthday, we’ve definitely gone out of our way to make sure that there was a big celebration.”

Courtesy of Hallie Sigwing

Until this year, that is.

Social distancing meant they couldn’t be together for a big party like usual, which was hard for Ricken’s family to come to grips with ⁠— especially since he lives alone.

So Sigwing's uncle in St. Louis suggested they put a out call on Facebook to people who knew Ricken or their family. Would people like to send him a birthday card? Because of Ricken's great sense of humor, the invitation encouraged people to send particularly funny ones.

“I still try and send cards when I can," says Sigwing. "I think there’s something really special about having a physical birthday card."

The whole family was surprised by the response.

As of Monday, Ricken had received 100 cards in the mail. Even more have arrived since then.

The fire department also came by to sing happy birthday to him (from a safe distance). This was the same Sedgwick County station where Ricken was a fireman himself from the late 1950s to the early 1980s.

Fireman Bobby Southern reached out to the family himself, saying the department wanted to "honor one of their own."

Not everyone was excited to see the fire truck.

“Everybody knows him,” says Sigwing. “So when the fire truck showed up in front of his house with the lights and sirens and everything going off, a couple of the neighbors ran over to his house because they thought something had happened to him. But obviously it was just the birthday crew. It was pretty funny.”

As to how Ricken is responding to all of this attention, Sigwing says he finds “the ruckus” pretty hilarious.

“He’s like, who are these people?” says Sigwing. “Because he’s gotten a lot of cards from people he doesn’t even know.”

It’s also been a comfort to his family stuck at home.

“Ideally we would have loved to have seen him,” says Sigwing. “But I think that knowing that he’s so loved, not only by our family, but by so many of his friends and family around the country, and that people went out of their way to do this really made the entire situation a lot sweeter.”

Courtesy of Hallie Sigwing

Hallie Sigwing spoke with KCUR at the end of a recent episode of Up To Date Special Coverage: Coronavirus In KC. You can listen to their entire conversation here.

Whether it’s something happening right now or something that happened 100 years ago, some stories don’t fit in the short few minutes of a newscast. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I help investigate questions and local curiosities in a way that brings listeners along for adventures with plot twists and thought-provoking ideas. Sometimes there isn’t an easy answer in the end – but my hope is that we all leave with a greater understanding of the city we live in. Reach me at mackenzie@kcur.org.
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