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He was a smiley face

Somehow the letter ended up on the floor next to my desk. I didn’t bother to move it for months.

I looked at it every day, and every day it smiled at me, that hand-drawn, trademark face peeking from the torn envelope.

“Dear Paul,” it began.

The return address was scribbled with pride in the top left corner. The letter was written the same way, on the back of a used piece of paper, an appraisal of a home, if I recall. The man didn’t like to waste.

“Thanks so much for sharing the experience with me,” it went on. “I still can’t believe it.”

It ended with his signature, and his signature smiley face.

David Swehla, you see, was a smiley face everywhere he went. I hate that word, was.

The 1954 Sterling High School graduate died Tuesday in a car accident on U.S. 30. He returned home, like he promised me he would on the August afternoon when our paths collided in Portland, Ore., during the Little League Softball World Series.

He said he was coming to take care of his mother’s house. She had died almost a year earlier.

David, 72, left Sterling decades ago, settling in the Northwest after traveling the world. He raised two sons and two daughters.

He put his roots down in far-away soil. But Sterling never left David Swehla.

When he found out Sterling was coming to him last August, to the series at Alpenrose Field, the retired teacher was beside himself with joy.

“It’s the first time in a long time the little boy in me has come out to play,” he told me.

He wasn’t lying. By the end of the series, he’d lost his voice. But not his enthusiasm.

He’d rise every morning and write cheers for the team of 11- and 12-year-old girls who called his home home. He’d arrive at the ballpark and put those cheers to use. He became a fan-favorite himself.

He made more friends than he knows during those days last summer, not because he treated every Sterling fan to cookies during one game, but because he treated them to him.

He was sad when the World Series ended, when Sterling was going back to Sterling and he was going back to normal at his Tigard, Ore., home.

“What am I going to do with my afternoons now?” he asked me.

He presented gifts to all the girls after their final game, which resulted in a third-place finish. He felt like part of home again.

The gifts were simple place mats with inspirational messages scribbled in that handwriting I became so familiar with.

There were e-mails, too, though he preferred to write. There were invites to dinner when he was to arrive in town. Offers to crash at his place and to be a tour guide should I ever return Portland.

He gave me a place mat, too. The laminated map of Oregon is covered by his words. And, of course, his smiley face. I have it in my basement.

I never did get that dinner with him. Time to take that mat out and have a meal with my friend from Sterling.

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