Apple Valley graduate makes a chance discovery that’s recounted in her new book

Carolyn Porter

by Rachel Anderson
Special to Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune

Visiting an antique store is like going on a journey back in time. Most shops are filled with old furniture, paintings, dishes and knickknacks, but sometimes amazing treasures are found.

More than a decade ago, 1987 Apple Valley High School graduate Carolyn Porter visited a now-closed antique store in downtown Stillwater.
“I have an affection for old handwriting, and I had been keeping an eye out for old letters I could use as source material for a new computer font,” said Porter, who is a freelance graphic designer from White Bear Lake. “But until that day, I had not found letters that included enough raw material to work with.”

For her font, Porter needed a handwriting sample that had a complete array of both upper and lowercase letters, along with numbers.

She found exactly what she had been looking for in a collection of letters written during World War II by a Frenchman named Marcel Heuzé.

“I was drawn not only to Marcel’s beautiful, swashed handwriting, but to the papers the letters had been written on. The yellowed pages were covered with faded ink and stripes of blue and red had been painted in the background,” said Porter, who bought five of the 20 or so letters for sale. “They cost just over $6 apiece; $30 was all I felt comfortable spending that day.”

Over the next several years, Porter worked on the font in her spare time. She finished the font in late 2013, and was honored when P22 Type Foundry, a New York-based distributor that specializes in fonts based on art, history, and design, wanted “Marcel” to be part of their curated collection.

Since its release, P22 Marcel Script has garnered five awards, including the Certificate for Typographic Excellence from the New York Type Director’s Club.

However, the creation of the P22 Marcel Script is only part of the story.

A few years before the release of the font, Porter took on another project.

Out of curiosity, she had one of Marcel’s letters translated. Porter, who does not speak French, was shocked to learn Marcel’s letters had been mailed from a labor camp in Berlin.

“Marcel desperately missed his wife and three young daughters,” she said.

She would learn his wife and daughters were waging their own battle for survival in a village in the countryside southwest of Paris.

In her recently released book, “Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate,” Porter shares the story of her search for answers. Skyhorse Publishing of New York City is releasing the book this month.

Porter says the peek into Marcel’s life, which was revealed in that first translated letter, left her yearning for answers.

“Marcel had this incredible tenacity and hope, which was amazing considering where he was,” Porter said.

What began as a curiosity turned into an obsessive search for answers.

“I had to know if he survived and made it home to his family,” she said.

In the book, Porter pieces together answers from archives in Germany, France, and across the U.S. Along the way, she learned more about the 600,000 French civilians forced to live and work in Germany during World War II.

“There were millions of jobs in factories, farms, and mines that needed to be done to support the war industry. The Germans needed laborers to replace the German men who had been transferred to the fronts to fight, so they demanded workers from the countries they occupied. At times, Marcel was living in a camp surrounded by razor wire and guarded by S.S. Men worked 70 hours per week and survived on starvation rations. Yet as bad as the French workers had it,” Porter said, “others had it far worse.”

In one of the letters, Marcel wrote: “We are about 60 in an old kitchen that is our lodging now. We bed down on straw. Do you picture it? Good thing that it isn’t too cold. We don’t have any light, that’s why my letter is messy.”

In another he said: “As soon as we leave the table we are hungry again. What we eat doesn’t stick to our ribs,” and “Death does not count any more.”

Marcel’s letters were also filled with words of love and optimism. One letter ended with these words for his wife: “And for you, my beloved one, I always save my most tender kisses.”

In other letters, he offers gentle advice to his young daughters.

With the help of a genealogy researcher, Porter learned of Marcel’s fate, which is revealed in the book. The genealogy researcher also helped Porter track down several of Marcel’s relatives in France. Porter obtained permission from Marcel’s family to share the contents of these never-before-published letters.

Early reviews for “Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate” have been very favorable.

Cathryn J. Prince, author of “American Daredevil: The Extraordinary Life of Richard Halliburton, the World’s First Celebrity Travel Writer,” said, “In ‘Marcel’s Letters’ Carolyn Porter has plucked a powerful story from the recesses of history.”

Megan Smolenyak, author of “Who Do You Think You Are? The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History” said, “Carolyn Porter takes us on her offbeat quest to solve a transatlantic history mystery and unearths an intriguing pocket of our past along the way.”

Elizabeth Rynecki, author of “Chasing Portraits” said, “We pick a font hoping it says something about us: that we are creative, intellectual, or have business know-how. But what happens when a font picks a graphic designer and turns her world upside down and inside out? In ‘Marcel’s Letters,’ Carolyn rescues one man’s legacy, and ultimately gifts us with her own.”

Porter’s book is available in hardcover and eBook format when it is released in June 2017. Pre-sales are already underway online at
Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com, as well as through Apple’s iBooks and IndieBound.org.

For more information, go to www.Carolyn-Porter.com.