ANNAPOLIS -- It's an irresistible heart-tugger.
Seven-year-old boy dying of a brain tumor. Doesn't have long to live. Final wish is to be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the person receiving more get-well wishes than anyone else.
A non-profit foundation that tries to grant last wishes to terminally ill children hears of his request and sends out a chain letter asking that cards be sent to the English boy, Craig Shergold.
The request is so compelling, and the response is so easy, it seems no one -- including officials in dozens of state and county government offices throughout Maryland -- can refuse.
In August, Sharon Weygand, district manager of the Cecil
County Soil Conservation District, received the letter and dutifully forwarded copies of it to the county public works department, the county farm bureau, the state Forest, Park and Wildlife Service, and seven other government agencies and private businesses, including the Cecil Whig newspaper.
"I remember reading it, and that it came from another [Maryland soil conservation] district, and thought, 'Well, what would it hurt? What's a couple letters? The poor kid's dying of a brain tumor,' " Ms. Weygand recalled.
By last month, the chain letter had reached -- among dozens of others -- Dr. James Milliken, head of the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension Service office in Kent County.
"I just assumed, since the [name of the] Children's Wish Foundation was on it, it was a legitimate thing. I got it from the extension office down in Wicomico County. They said: 'Add 10 letters to it and send it on.' "
So Dr. Milliken did. He even wrote young Craig a brief letter of his own that conveyed the best wishes of the Kent County extension office and said, "We hope your dream to be in the Guinness Book of World Records comes true."
Well, boy, did it!
It seems that through publicity, philanthropy and modern medical procedures, Craig Shergold is in no danger of dying any time soon -- he is no longer 7, he is now 12 -- unless he somehow gets buried under an avalanche of unwanted mail.
Most of the brain tumor was surgically removed earlier this year. He is recovering nicely, thank you, at his home in the tiny English town of Carshalton, in Surrey.
He set the Guinness Book record in April 1990 with 16 million pieces of mail, but it is still pouring in. The total is currently estimated at 33 million cards and letters.
The flood has been so great and so unstoppable that the Children's Wish Foundation in Atlanta was forced to open a separate post office box for its own mail not related to Craig's request.
The foundation has had to rent a warehouse just to store Craig's mail, which is still arriving at a pace of about 10,000 pieces a week.
Volunteers sort through it and then ship almost all of it directly to recycling centers, said Christy Chappelear, events coordinator for the foundation.
"We're trying everything we can just to get it stopped," she said. "It's gotten so out of control."
The problem, she says, is that when people receive the letter, they just re-date it and send it along.
A spurt of letters will come from one part of the country, then die down and then pick up again from another region, she said. nTC About 50 people a day call the Atlanta office inquiring about Craig's condition, she said.
There have been hundreds of newspaper stories written about Craig and how Virginia billionaire John Kluge heard of his plight and paid for him to be flown in March to Charlottesville for the brain surgery that is credited with saving his life.
The boy has received letters from the country singing duo the Judds, from superstar Michael Jackson, heartthrob actor Richard Gere ("That was Craig's mom's favorite card," Ms. Chappelear said), from sports figures and even U.S. GIs during Operation Desert Storm.
When a copy of the chain letter arrived in the Anne Arundel county executive's office, assistant public affairs officer Anne Mannix did what her counterparts elsewhere in state and county agencies have done: added 10 names to the list and sent it along.
"It had gone to all the other state offices. They somehow got our name, put us on the list," she recalled.
"I didn't know anything about it. So, I did it. What's a letter going to hurt?"
Then, she recalled, she picked up a copy of USA Today and discovered an article about Craig's miraculous recovery.
"I found out, after I sent it out, that Craig Shergold was, in fact, among the living. He was alive and well and being bombarded by letters," she said.
Too late. By then, her letter had spread to more than 30 separate government agencies in Anne Arundel County alone -- everything from the fire department to the detention center to the auditor's office.