Answer Man

Answer Man: Did unknown student coin famous advice?

Q. I was reminded recently that people in troubled relationships are often told something like, “If you love someone, let them go. If they come back, they were meant to be yours. If not, they never were.” Who should we credit for this popular saying?

— H.L., of O’Fallon

A. If you’re like me, you’re probably hoping it was some great Romantic poet like John Keats or Elizabeth Barrett Browning or at least a well-known motivational speaker such as Leo Buscaglia.

Well, sorry to disappoint, but all paths to the origin of this pithy lovers’ maxim seem to end at the desk of some unknown student at Montana State University. Here’s the story, according to Tad Tuleja in his 2000 book “Quirky Quotations”:

In the 1960s, Jess Lair, a teacher at MSU’s school of education, asked his students to share comments, questions and feelings on index cards and leave them on a table in the front of the classroom. It was strictly voluntary, and the offerings did not have to be original or attributed. Moreover, the students did not even have to sign their names to the submissions.

Lair eventually used many of the quotes in his book “I Ain’t Much Baby-But I’m All I’ve Got,” which Lair reportedly published initially to help his students “find themselves.” Then, when the book’s popularity took off during the Age of Aquarius, he released it to the general public.

"What are some of the discoveries I have made?” he wrote. “I found I needed people because I needed the love they could give me. I found that love was something I did. I found that the way I showed people my need and love for them was to tell how it was with me in my deepest heart.

“I came to feel that was the most loving thing I could do for anyone — tell them how it was with me and share my imperfections with them. When I did this, most people came back at me with what was deep within them. This was love coming to me. And the more I had coming to me, the more I had to give away.”

Many of the thoughts he received were not exactly earthshaking. “I heard a very profound statement last night. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten it,” one student joked. “No guts-no glory,” another opined. “Laughter is the song of the angels,” a third offered.

But there in the pile of cards from his juniors and seniors was this: “If you want something very, very badly, let it go free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever. If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.”

Unfortunately, this writer did not include his name so nobody knows whether it is an original thought or whether the student was simply passing on something he or she may have read or heard. However, scholars such as the Quote Investigator, Garson O’Toole, who has a doctorate from Yale University, have been stymied in their attempts to find a more definitive origin.

O’Toole says that in 1951 Esquire magazine published the short story “The Tyranny of Love” by Harry Kronman, which contained a quote that could have formed the basis for the oft-heard adage.

“I mean, if you love something very much, you’ve got to go easy with it — give it some room to move around. If you try to hold it tight like that, it’ll always try to get away.”

But other than Lair’s book, the best O’Toole can find was a very similar quote used in a 1972 cartoon panel entitled “Meditation” by graphic artist Peter Max, who said he had received it from a Chantal Sicile of Staten Island, N.Y. Subsequent to O’Toole’s Internet column on the subject, one man wrote he had heard of Khalil Gibran and psychologist Fritz Perls as possible sources, but admitted he could find no documentation. And, it certainly wasn’t Sting, who released “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” as the leadoff song on his first solo album in 1985.

Still, despite its questionable bloodline, the quote apparently remains popular as witness this satiric takeoff found on the Internet in 1999: “If it just sits in your living room, messes up your stuff, eats your food, uses your telephone, takes your money, and doesn’t appear to realize that you had set it free, you either married it or gave birth to it.”

Q. I sometimes need to convert PDF files into Word, but I don’t trust most the sites I see while others want $15 per month. Any ideas?

— Gracia Schlafly, of Columbia

A. Depending on the file, I received two big thumbs-up for from Brad Weisenstein, our multimedia editor, who uses it frequently here. In demonstrating it to me, he showed it was simple to upload a file and convert it into a number of popular formats, including Word.

It probably will be easier if you create a free account, which allows you five conversions a week of files up to 150 megabytes in size, according to the site. (Note: It did not work for a reprint of a newspaper article with a picture.) You also might try, which seems to earn high praise from users, too.

Today’s trivia

Who was the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: While the standard golf tee is 2 1/8 inches long, tees of up to 4 inches are allowed under U.S. Golf Association rules so long as they do not “indicate line of play, unduly influence the movement of the ball or otherwise assist a player in making a stroke.” According to some golfing blogs, using a 3-inch tee, for example, may add 20 or more yards to the average drive by producing a higher launch angle with less spin.