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What are the Chances…? He Missed the Boat

By Lydia Hope Wilen / New York City

J. Walter Allen in the Senior Olympics at age 97
J. Walter Allen in the Senior Olympics at age 97

Giving Credit Where Credit’s (Not) Due

Chicken Soup and Other Folk Remedies by the Wilen sisters (my sister Joan and me) was published in 1984. The sequel, More Chicken Soup and Other Folk Remedies (we stayed up nights to come up with that title) was published in 1986. Later that year, our editor forwarded a letter sent to us in care of our publisher. It was from J. Walter Allen in Florida, crediting our books for his longevity.

Get out the calculator. J. Walter Allen was born in 1892. He was at least 92 by the time he got our first Chicken Soup book. But who were we to argue with a nonagenarian? Instead, we thanked him for his confidence in our remedies. That was the start of a 10-year correspondence and a visit.

Fan Fare

Years ago, before social media changed the way things are done, there were fan clubs that would keep track of the comings and goings of celebrities, usually with a publicist’s assistance. When a celeb was expected to arrive at a city’s airport, his or her publicist notified the fan club president who would, in turn, gather the members at the airport to welcome the incoming star.

What’s wrong with this picture? We had a fan coming into JFK Airport and the two celebrities went there to meet him.

Walter's Tam O'Shanter Enchanter
Walter's Tam O'Shanter Enchanter

Clad in Plaid

The plane landed and most of the passengers were walking towards the baggage-claim area. Having seen us on television many times, Walter knew what we looked like. Even so, we did what was done for us on our media tours. When we did a city a day, we’d get off a plane and be met by an escort, arranged by our publisher. We would recognize the escort because he or she would be holding up our book. And so, this time, each of us held up a copy of our Chicken Soup books, taking no chance of being missed. Sure enough, a big lad, clad in plaid, grabbed both of us in a bear hug. We later found out that he had been an amateur wrestler in London, when, as he put it, “Wrestling was wrestling.” On his head, he wore a plaid tam with a red pom-pom. Not that it matched his plaid tie, or the different plaid of his jacket, or his pair of pants in yet another nonmatching plaid.

Walter Before the Altar

We sat with our fan Walter in an airport lounge and we talked. Joany and I mostly listened as we became his fans. A couple of hours later, he boarded a plane for Switzerland. Before his departure, we learned that he was born in Switzerland and moved to London when he was a very young man. He worked in food services at hotels and restaurants. During his free time, he became a member of a dancing club, frequented by Swiss people. That’s where he met and married the love of his life, Johanna.

Before his marriage, Walter had an opportunity to work on the maiden voyage of a British passenger liner, as part of an 885-member crew of temporary workers. The ship would take him to Cherbourg, France, then to Queenstown, Ireland, and the last stop before returning to England, would be New York…the USA. A sightseeing dream come true--with pay--for 20-year-old Walter.

A ship that sailed without him
The ship that sailed without him

His Ship Had Sailed

England in April of 1912. Walter needed to get to Southampton to board the ship. He couldn’t go out in the street and yell “Taxi!” It wasn’t like that then. He had to take a train from London. He missed the train that would have gotten him there on time. The train he was able to take arrived too late for Walter to report in at Berth 44 on the White Star Dock in Southampton. He missed the boat. Yup! The ship had sailed. Oh, did I mention? The ship was the Titanic.

What were the Chances…?

Walter was devastated, having missed a major opportunity… the maiden voyage of the Titanic. A few years later, he married Johanna and in 1919, they moved to Florida. After 63 years of wedded bliss, Johanna died in 1985. Walter continued to live a full, rich life, as active as ever. He was an artist, played the harmonica, wrote poetry, stories and letters...a lot of letters. He was an inventor; in 1987 he applied for a patent for an electric toenail grinder. In 1989 he was by far the most senior competitor in Florida’s Senior Olympics, which included his golf, shuffleboard and dancing events.

J. Walter Allen's last letter to the Wilen Sisters - 1998
J. Walter Allen's last letter to the Wilen sisters - 1998

He may have missed the boat, but he didn’t miss much else. He was a great participant in life. Our last letter from him was in November 1998. He died soon after at 106 years old, probably still crediting our Chicken Soup books.

The Moral of the Story

I think Walter would want to tell you not to dwell on what you’ve missed. Change your focus to what you have and how to use it, happily, creatively, productively and gratefully.


If you have a “What Are The Chances...? story you would like to share, I’d love to know about it. Email it to me at Don’t be shy!


Photo Credit: Eric Stephen Jacobs
Photo Credit: Eric Stephen Jacobs

Lydia Hope Wilen had a successful collaboration with her late sister Joany as nonfiction bestselling authors (18 books), journalists, TV personalities, writers and talent coordinators on a Nickelodeon series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, Reading Rainbow episodes, skit writers for Dr. Ruth's TV show, Diet America Challenge on CBS, and writers of screenplays (optioned but not produced yet).

Lydia is writing on her own now and has just completed an extraordinary book for young people and their parents. It will have them laughing and learning...once she gets an agent and it gets published.



Dec 24, 2022

Another model of expert story construction. Leading the reader to believe her story will be another inspirational piece about an active senior citizen, she plants clues about her the real payoff throughout the story. Building a tight biographical sketch, Lydia pulls off the surprise revelation at the end. And, by ending the piece with the main character's own words, the article goes beyond pointing a moral and really touches you.


Dec 22, 2022

I can’t think of a more inspiring story as we begin a new year. I wish we all could have a Walter in our lives. Joan and Lydia were lucky as was Walter to have them as friends. And he proved that when someone complains about missing the boat, it can be the best thing that’s ever happened. Arlen


Dec 21, 2022

Another great anecdote and lesson. Not sure about the guilty conscience vs. smoking but we loved hearing about Walter. Ellen &Fred


Dec 21, 2022

Just wonderful. Have to Have more. I am getting all of books . Thank you, you are amazing ?

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