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Phil Luciano: Tidings tradition continues to delight mailing duo

Phil Luciano

With the annual Christmas exchange between Gene Dybvig and John Wagner, it's definitely the thought that counts.

For a half-century of yuletides, the two pals have not had to spend a dime on each other - except for the cost of a postage stamp. All that time, they have sent the same Christmas card back and forth.

The card is a bit worn, and the inside is getting crowded with scrawled messages. But it survives as a highlight to each gent's holiday season.

"The card is not a thing of great beauty," says Dybvig, 87, a former Peorian who now lives in the Metro East area. "But it does represent our attempt by a couple of old friends to never let that friendship die."

In 1959, Dybvig, the program manager at Channel 19, lived with wife Shirley on Moss Avenue. He'd sometimes take a stroll down the block to Western Avenue, where he'd stop in for a beer or two at the Hilltop Tap.

There, he became acquainted with John Wagner, who, then as now, lived in Peoria. One night that December, the Dybvigs invited Wagner over for dinner. Wagner marveled at the many Christmas cards the Dybvigs had received from other couples. Wagner remarked that as a single guy, he got very few holiday cards.

Smiling, Dybvig snatched up a card sent to him by his brother. Dybvig handed it to Wagner, saying with a chuckle, "Here's a Christmas card for ya."

Wagner stuck it in his pocket and took it home. It was still lying around a year later, so Wagner decided to sign it and send it back to Dybvig, who laughed at the recycled greeting.

Thus began a tradition. Over the years, each man added new names beyond their own. Wagner would marry a gal named Margie, whose name would grace the card. Children would be added, too.

Also playing prominent roles on the card have been pets, such as Cally the cat and Pepi the dog. Some animals also are marked with drawings of the animals, such as that of Charlie the poodle and Marshmallow the rabbit, along with two anonymous fish.

Other doodlings include a candy cane, three ornaments, a heart, a stick man drinking a beer and (it seems) a dancing foot.

Says a smiling Wagner, "It's hard to read. It's like a puzzle."

Two years, the card went missing. In 1977 and 1978, Wagner misplaced it.

"I had it in the wrong file," he says sheepishly. "It was heartbreaking."

But ever since, the card has kept ping-ponging between the pair. Sometimes, they became pressed to cite legitimate additions to the card. That's why there is the block lettering for "President George W. Bush" and this year's entry - via Democrat Dybvig - "S. Sotomayor," for the U.S. Supreme Court justice nominated by President Obama.

There is at least one bona fide celebrity signature: that of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon. The downstate politician became friends with Dybvig when Dybvig moved to Carbondale to teach communications at Southern Illinois University.

Now retired, Dybvig lives with his wife in Millstadt, a small Illinois town near St. Louis. Wagner, a retired salesman who declines to give his age, lives in The Knolls subdivision with his spouse.

This year, Wagner says he enjoys the best part of the tradition: He is the recipient. That's more fun then sending the card, because he can spend time looking back all during Christmastime.

"You review it, and it's a whole history," he says.

Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Luciano can be reached at (309) 686-3155 or pluciano@pjstar.com.