Just in time and only about 150 miles from Chicago, the nation's feel-good story of the summer has arrived.
A 96-year-old, first-time songwriter from Peoria was No. 6 on the iTunes singles chart early Thursday afternoon and No. 49 on the Billboard rock digital charts with "Oh Sweet Lorraine," an ode to his recently deceased wife.
If you aren't moved by "A Letter From Fred," the nine-minute Vimeo documentary about the making of the song that's gone viral in the last several days, you probably have a heart the size of a Tic Tac and might want to get that checked out.
Fred Stobaugh's wife, Lorraine, 91, died in a Peoria nursing home in late April, two months shy of the couple's 73rd wedding anniversary. They'd met in 1938 when she was a 17-year-old carhop at a local A&W restaurant, "the prettiest girl I ever saw," Stobaugh says in the video. " I just fell in love with her right there."
The outline of their story is familiar and sweet. Three daughters, five grandchildren, a great-grandchild. He drove a delivery truck for a living. She worked on the line at the Hiram Walker & Sons distillery in Peoria until just before it closed in 1979.
"They were always together, everywhere they went," said Rocky Hemp Jr., 42, one of their grandsons. "They had a wonderful life."
"After she passed away, I was just sitting in the front room one evening by myself, and this came to me," says Stobaugh in the video, referring to the song. "I just kept humming it . ... It seemed like it fit her."
He then saw an ad in the paper: A fledgling recording business — Green Shoe Studio across the river in East Peoria — was sponsoring a songwriting contest. Contestants were to submit their entries via YouTube.
YouTube? Stobaugh isn't online. And he doesn't sing or play an instrument. So he mailed in his lyrics along with an explanatory cover letter.
"I started crying, it was so heartwarming," said Jonathan Colgan, who founded the studio with his wife, Oceanna, and his brother Jacob late last year. "Jacob was like, 'wow, we've got to do something with this.'"
The lyrics are raw, filled with grief and longing:
Oh sweet Lorraine,
I wish we could do all the good times over again,
Oh sweet Lorraine,
Life only goes around once but never again . . .
The memories always linger on.
Oh sweet Lorraine, I don't want to move on …
Oh sweet Lorraine that's why I wrote you this song.
It didn't win the contest — no matter, since first prize was a three-song session at Green Shoe Studios, and Stobaugh didn't have three songs to record — but team Colgan decided to make a professional quality recording of "Oh Sweet Lorraine" along with a video about the process. That process included teasing out of Stobaugh the melody that was in his head. We see him at home trying in a very weak, weathered voice to approximate it as Jacob Colgan guesses at chords on a guitar.
The video then flashes forward to Stobaugh listening for the first time to the result of this collaboration — a lush ballad as sung by Jacob Colgan. When it's over, he covers his mouth with his left hand as his eyes fill with tears. "Wonderful," he says. "Just wonderful."
He adds later, "I really, really miss her. It just don't seem right. Like a dream, yep."
Green Shoe Studios posted the video July 16, but it drew almost no attention and almost sank out of sight. Vimeo statistics show it had just 29 views from Aug. 1 through Aug. 19.
Then on Aug. 20, Robert-John Evans, the London-based proprietor of the kuriositas blog, found it while prowling deep in the Vimeo archives. He was moved to "happy tears," he told me, and featured it on his site. Suddenly the video was getting hundreds of views a day, which became hundreds of thousands a day after Canadian Broadcasting Corp. TV and radio talk host George Stroumboulopoulos promoted it last Saturday.
Then came the media onslaught, including coverage in the New York Daily Mail, India Today and ABC News on Sunday. The Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune online, CNN, NBC and Melbourne Herald Sun on Monday. The Associated Press and People magazine.
Many stories and headlines have described "Oh, Sweet Lorraine" as heartbreaking, which I suppose it is. A old widower sorrowfully clinging to a past that will never return and all that.
But it's also uplifting — a celebration of the joys of three-quarters of a century together — and inspiring.
How lucky Fred Stobaugh is! Not to be famous and riding the pop charts, but to be able to look back on so many years with such warmth.
Watch the video at <a href="http://vimeo.com/70426141#" target="new" rel="nofollow">chicagotribune.com/couple</a>. Wait, I think you have something in your eye.