A Love Story So Unbelievable, Snopes.com Investigated

The late UCLA coach John Wooden once said, “Passion is temporary. Love is enduring.” Indeed, John”s love for his wife Nellie Riley is the stuff of romantic legend. As the story goes, Wooden wrote a love letter to his beloved every 21st of the month, saying how much he missed her and couldn’t wait to see her again.

“Then he”ll fold it once, slide it in a little envelope and walk into his bedroom,” Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Riley wrote in a March 2000 column about Wooden. “He”ll go to the stack of love letters sitting there on her pillow, untie the yellow ribbon, place the new one on top and tie the ribbon again. The stack will be 180 letters high then, because the 21st will be 15 years to the day since Nellie, his beloved wife of 53 years, died.”

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Reilly was one of many sportswriters who documented Wooden’s enduring ritual long after his wife died, but the story peculiarly re-emerged years later as popular lore, Snopes.com’s Barbara Mikkelson reported. “We can”t fathom why the article quoted above suddenly became a hot e-mail forward in 2004,” Mikkelson wrote upon Wooden’s death in June 2010.

In the Sports Illustrated column, Reilly described the widower’s daily ode to his late wife: “In her memory, he sleeps only on his half of the bed, only on his pillow, only on top of the sheets, never between, with just the old bedspread they shared to keep him warm.”

Because Snopes.com bills itself as a definitive reference source for urban legend, folklore, myths, rumors and misinformation, site co-founder Barbara Mikkelson set out to investigate. “So often the stories we classify as glurge have precious little factual basis to them, existing primarily as parables meant to inspire rather than inform,” she wrote. “Yet that is not the case here — this item paints an accurate portrait of John Wooden, the renowned basketball coach.”

“On the 21st day of every month, after visiting her grave at Forest Lawn, Coach Wooden writes her a letter, which he leaves on the pillow on her side of the bed. Each of those letters ends with his telling her he misses her every day and looks forward to the time he can be with her again,” Snopes reported. “The coach”s monthly letters to his deceased wife Nellie are a matter of record; they are mentioned in any number of articles about the man, often by reporters who have themselves seen them.”

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