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Reliving the 'Four Freedoms'

Fairfax man's 1943 essay is part of the Norman Rockwell exhibit at the Corcoran.

<bt>One day, Merrill Sickles Jr.'s lifelong pack rat habits would be well rewarded. In January 2003, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington asked the Fairfax resident if he had any memorabilia relating to an essay contest he had entered 61 years ago as a high-school senior.

The Corcoran was in luck. Not only did Sickles, 79, have the 1943 essay he wrote, he had the letter from The Hecht Co. notifying him of his honorable mention.

"I'm a compulsive saver," said Sickles.

Sickles' essay is just one of many artifacts currently on display at a Corcoran exhibit on painter Norman Rockwell. The exhibit, "Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms: Paintings that Inspired a Nation," explores the World War II era in which the collection of four paintings was created for the Saturday Evening Post.

Timed with the opening of the World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall last May, the each painting depicts one of the Four Freedoms expressed in a famous speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Four Freedoms, and images, were Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.

"It's very interesting, and I love the pictures," said Sickles' wife, Catherine, of the exhibit. "Those Four Freedoms were so important to World War II time. It helped to pull us together."

After Rockwell created the Four Freedoms paintings to serve as covers for the Saturday Evening Post, they toured around the country as part of an effort to promote patriotism and war bonds.

"The Four Freedoms images were tied very intimately with the war bonds," said Emily Shapiro, assistant curator of American art at the Corcoran.

At each destination, a contest took place asking local students to write an essay about the Four Freedoms. In Washington, the first stop of the tour, the contest was sponsored by The Hecht Co. and the U.S. Treasury Department.

Sickles' essay, "What the Four Freedoms Mean to Me," received an honorable mention in the contest. In his essay, he described why each of the Four Freedoms was important to America, using his recent conversion to Christianity to illustrate the Four Freedoms' values.

"I believe we are fighting this war to preserve and extend to other parts of the world these freedoms," wrote Sickles in his essay.

AFTER WINNING the award, Sickles' name and school, Calvin Coolidge High School in Washington, along with the names and schools of other winners, were listed in a newspaper article about the contest.

Almost 60 years later, that newspaper clipping would help curators at the Corcoran track down the winners of the essay contest. Out of the over 40 winners they had attempted to locate using ancestry databases and school alumni associations, they found four winners. Out of those four winners, Sickles was the only person who had saved anything.

"It was a big help to us because it was the only one we got," Shapiro said.

When Sickles and his wife heard the Corcoran was looking for him, he was surprised. Sickles kept the letter the Corcoran mailed to him asking for artifacts from the essay contest.

"They were so happy. They were so thrilled to find us again," Sickles said.

Reading the essay again, Sickles thought he sounded idealistic when he expressed the hope that the Four Freedoms would extend throughout the globe. Yet he did still agree to the two Bible verses he had included in the essay.

"I still believe in the Bible, and I still believe in Jesus," Sickles said.

Since writing the essay, Sickles got married to Catherine, had two children, and worked in the federal government for 39 years. He teaches fishing to children and their parents.

The essay faded in his memory, but Sickles continued to write throughout the years. He collected his anecdotes, inspirational stories, jokes and Letters to the Editor and put them into a booklet, "The Mixing Bowl," which he gives to his friends. He regularly supplements the book, and the latest supplement tells his readers about the Corcoran exhibit.

He enjoys taking friends to the Corcoran, where they can see his essay under glass.

"He's a wonderful writer. He's a very intelligent man. He is a prolific writer," said Jeaneen LaLone of Fairfax, a former neighbor, who has known Sickles all her life.

She added that Sickles' essay helped her remember not to take her current freedoms for granted.

"It was well-written in the respect that it covered those Four Freedoms. It's just a good reminder of the freedoms we have today," LaLone said.