By Michelle Kosinski, NBC News correspondent
YOU did this. Almost the minute our story about many Americans struggling to pay their heating bills aired last month, we heard from you.
Getting one or two calls wasn't a real surprise...but then, the calls and e-mails just kept coming--from you, our viewers, urgently looking for a way to reach the gentleman we featured, John MacPherson, in Boston.
A veteran of the Normandy invasion as a teenager, the 82-year-old told us most matter-of-factly--almost cheerfully--how he'd been cutting back on eating to pay his heating bills each month. He even chuckled to show us that Cup o' Noodles had become his dinner companion. His pantry was stacked with them--a circumstance that stunned, saddened and infuriated so many of you.
John, we should tell you, is sharp as a tack and the very definition of a "character"
--brimming with energy and crazy-but-true stories, laughing and joking, busting out with the Scottish accent, teasing us about our serious newsiness, in between telling us how hard it can be to winter in a big, drafty, 100-plus-year-old house all alone. We could practically feel the wind coming in from around every window. Yet, he told us, "I don't complain. I get by." He wouldn't let us leave without a big slice of the banana cake he had baked himself, and some hot tea.
So, something about that spirit must have just surged through. You wanted to help him. Right now. And, you did.
You sent him cards, gift baskets, personal stories about your husbands and fathers who served somewhere alongside John during those years of WWII. You sent him funds for heat, and food. You shipped him steaks to fill his freezer. Bought him groceries. One of you took the time to call Veterans' Affairs offices, to navigate the maze that he could not, and found out that John is entitled to far more in benefits than he's been getting--along with money that might now soon be coming to him, from some FORTY YEARS back. You gave him the gifts of new windows, and woodwork, and paint. And you sent him thanks. And love.
I can tell you, the guy for once was speechless. Well, almost.
"I've never gotten so much attention in my whole life!" he said incredulously,
We went back to see all of this in person last week. John never expected a bit of it, never dreamed his story would touch you in the way it did. It all made him uncharacteristically emotional, for a guy who'd been through some tough stuff in the war and had worked all his life to support his family.
"One lady said, all I got is $40, and I'll give it to you!" He paused, his voice breaking. "They don't even know who the heck I am!"
John's daughter Alexa had been helping him write the many thank you notes, as heartfelt as your wishes. Each one meant something to him--from the man who had survived for a while on Cup o' Noodles himself ("Yuck!" he wrote, and sent John a check), or the woman whose father had also served in Europe during WWII. She had lost him recently, and told John that he reminded her of her own dad. One more person who was a stranger yesterday, whom John now calls friend. He plans to stay in touch.
Alexa says that while her father tends to be a bit down during the holidays, having lost his own father on a Christmas Eve years ago, your outpouring has changed everything. She described him as being like a kid--yes, an 82-year-old kid--in a candy store.
"Now he feels recognized for having been in the war," she said. "He feels even prouder to be an American now."
On that freezing day in Boston last week, contractors were hammering and sawing all the way up to the top of John's house. He regaled them with stories all the while.
A group called Americans for Veterans had gathered carpenters and enlisted Commodore Builders to donate time and materials for some serious fixing-up around here. They are replacing all of his windows, and will paint this beautiful old home come springtime. Many are veterans themselves. One young man, looking barely out of his teens, had already served three tours in Iraq. He called his link to the older vets "an unspoken bond." John had fought for our very freedom, they all agreed.
This was their gift in return. And yours.
Susan Kooperstein, with ABCD of Boston, a group that helps people pay for heat in those wicked winters up there, was thrilled to see the outcome that day, but knowing well how many others like John are out there. She reminded us that if everyone just looks out for their immediate neighbors and gives a little time or something when they can, it would add up to a whole lot of hands, and a whole lot of help.
I can't quite describe the pleasure of having spoken to some of you directly these last few weeks, of having read your emails, and seen you reach out from those pages. To help, in ways big and small, a man you didn't know.
You have certainly brought a warmth to John MacPherson's holidays that no fuel could ever provide. It had to come from the heart. Here's to you, and here's hoping that it spreads.