Editor's Note: This story originally aired in December 2014.
FRIDLEY, Minn. – When Ron Brown licked the stamp on his Christmas letter in 1977, he could not have envisioned the nearly four-decade relationship he'd be cementing with a Minnesota medical device company.
The father of four from Nashville, Ill. was still in his 30s and just a few years removed from the heart problems that threatened his life, when he sat down at his typewriter and put his gratitude into words.
"It was a sincere letter of appreciation," he says, recalling little of the exact text.
He most certainly remembers to whom he wrote: Earl Bakken, the co-founder of Medtronic, the manufacturer of the pacemaker he credits for saving his life, and a man he had met during a visit to Medtronic the previous year.
So taken was Bakken by the letter, he read it to Medtronic's employees as they gathered for their 1977 holiday program.
When another letter arrived from Brown the following Christmas, Bakken read that one to the employees too.
A tradition was born.
"We all got to where we just looked forward to his letter to see what was going to happen with the Brown family," says Ann Tanko, who was in the room when Brown's first letter was read.
This year Brown wrote his 38th letter, updating Medtronic employees on his 12 grandchildren, two great grandchildren and another on the way. The retired biology teacher also wrote of his active life, including jogging and house painting at the age of 76.
"Without your products I would be a fading photograph in a family album, where I would be identified as 'That was your dad. That was your grandpa,'" he wrote.
But breaking with past tradition, Medtronic's founder did not read this year's letter. Bakken delivered a video greeting from his home in Hawaii, before Brown stepped to the podium to read his own letter.
"Today I've become Ron Brown the once a year soap opera series," he joked.
Pacing Brown's heart as he spoke was his seventh pacemaker, all of them Medtronic - though Brown's 2005 letter told of a close call.
Brown wrote that he was scheduled for surgery when he learned he was to be fitted with a competing company's pacemaker.
"My heart sank and I was incredulous," he wrote. "How could they even think of putting in anything other than a Medtronic product?"
His surgeon conceded, a Medtronic pacemaker was located and Brown's loyalty to Medtronic was preserved.
"Even though it was a mechanical device, it was a part of my heart in more ways than one," he said.
During his trip to the Twin Cities, Brown and his wife Judy also stopped by the Bakken Museum, to which he plans to donate the letters he saved along with his six previous pacemakers, all hand mounted by Brown on a Styrofoam board and labeled according to their years of service.
Brown left the stage at Medtronic to a thunderous standing ovation.
It's the sort of thing that can happen when one takes the time to write from the heart.
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