Carolyn Carty says she had never seen the poem "Footprints" until last year. This is odd, not only because it has appeared on millions of cards, mugs, posters and jewelry, and hung in restaurants, stores, churches and private homes from coast to coast. It's odd because Carty claims to be the poem's author. Forty-one years ago in Hopewell, N.J., she says, she banged it out on an old Remington. A family member decoupaged a copy onto a homemade jigsaw puzzle, another onto a wooden plaque. "That was the last I ever saw of my 'Footprints,'" says Carty.

Then last May, while surfing the Internet for the first time, Carty typed "footprints" into a search engine on a whim. The tsunami of results stunned her. (A Google search yields 70,000 hits, including "Footprints" Bible studies, a "Footprints and More" Christian music ministry, mouse pads, screen savers, "prayer rocks," and afghans.) "I couldn't believe all these people had been making millions off my poem all these years," says Carty. "And I never saw a single penny!"

Since then, Carty has been on a crusade to establish herself as the original author of "Footprints," and to get what she believes is her due.

She has stiff competition. Two other women, Margaret Fishback Powers and Mary Stevenson, have claimed authorship of the poem-and, like Carty, copyrighted it. The three versions vary by just a few words, and all of them describe life as a walk on the beach with the Lord. At times of need, the narrator can see only one set of footprints in the sand. When she tells the Lord, "I don't understand why when I needed you most you would leave me," the Lord replies reassuringly, "It was then that I carried you."

Powers, Stevenson, and Carty all copyrighted their versions in the mid-'80s, though ultimately it doesn't matter who registered first, since copyright registration doesn't demonstrate original authorship.

Powers got a leg up in the struggle to establish authorship in 1993, when Harper Collins Publishers published her "Footprints: The True Story Behind the Poem that Inspired Millions." In the book, Powers, a poet and co-founder of a large children's ministry in Canada, offers a compelling account of how she wrote the poem after a pensive walk with her husband-to-be, Paul Powers, along a beach near Kingston, Ontario, in 1964. She titled the poem "I Had a Dream."

Her memoir, and a series of "Footprints" devotionals and prayer books, have been translated into several languages. The books have sold more than a half million copies in Canada alone. She's also licensed the poem to Hallmark Cards, and, through Harper Collins, to merchandisers around the world, including Lenox gifts.

How does Harper Collins respond to the Carolyn Cartys of the world? "We tell them that Margaret Powers wrote the poem and she holds the copyright," says Ian Murray, contracts manager for Harper Collins Canada. "That's our position." At Hallmark, a spokesperson says that of all the purported authors, Powers "really is the one that gave credible evidence of authorship." Asked what that evidence was, the spokesperson replied, "Honestly, I don't know."

Carty's other main competitor is Mary Stevenson, whose claim is chronicled in Gail Giorgio's 1995 book, "Footprints in the Sand: The Inspiring Life Behind the Immortal Poem." Stevenson, who died at age 76 in 1999, said she had written "Footprints" in Chester, Pa., in 1936, when she was 14. A friend of Stevenson's, Kathy B. Hampton, maintains a website that honors Stevenson as the author.

Hampton also controlled Stevenson's poem, sold related products on her website and pursued "Footprints" licensing agreements until Stevenson's son, Basil Zangare, who maintains that Hampton took advantage of her mother in her final years, intervened. Zangare and Hampton finally resolved a six-year court battle last year. Zangare now controls his mother's estate, and hopes to start licensing her version of the poem soon. "Now that the dust has settled I just want focus on the most important thing," Zangare told me, "which is getting the truth out that my mother was the first to write 'Footprints.'"

None of this fazes Carty. She spends hours scouring the web for uses of "Footprints." Then she confronts the offenders. After I published a parody in which Justice Sandra Day O'Connor erects a three-ton, bronze "Footprints" monument in the lobby of the Supreme Court (inspired by former Alabama Judge Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument), Carty sent an email asking which version I'd posted, hers or Margaret Fishback Powers'. If I'd posted Carty's version and credited Powers, she said, "then you are now notified that my poem preceeds [sic] Margarets [sic] as well as my copyright." I assured her the article was satirical and that neither version had been used.

Her confusion led me to think Carty was a woman of advanced years-the more so since she'd purportedly been a crack poet more than 40 years ago. I was wrong. In a later email, Carty explained she had been a "child prodigy, born on Albert Einstein's birthday," with an I.Q. of 137 and that she could read and write by age four. Now 47, she claims she penned "Footprints" in 1963-a year before Powers-when she was six.

Carty composed "Footprints," she says, as she grieved the death of her grandfather. Her inspirations were Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John F. Kennedy.

Lloyd Kelly, a friend of Powers' family, firmly believes that Powers wrote "Footprints." It was Kelly who urged Powers to write her book for Harper Collins, where he is a vice president. "Margaret is a very sweet, very good person," Kelly told me. "I'd known her and her family for a long time, and I knew that she had written a lot of good poetry. She didn't need to convince me." (Powers' self-published 1986 collection, "From Heart to Heart: Poems and Poetry," includes "Footprints.")

"I told her she should take legal action against all these people taking credit," Kelly says. "But she kept saying no, that it wasn't in the spirit of the poem to do such a thing. She was far more concerned that the poem remain in the marketplace because it was inspiring people all over the world." Finally, Kelly convinced Powers to write a book, "to make things as right as possible by telling your story."

"We got more than 50 letters right away from people insisting that they had written 'Footprints,'" Kelly told me. "One was from a minister's wife who'd been telling her church for years that she was the author. It must have been embarrassing when Margaret's book came out." More than a decade later, the letters are still coming. "I think most of these people really are convinced that they actually wrote 'Footprints'," says Kelly.

More cynical minds would suspect that many are out to stake out some fame and make a buck. Still, it's hard to know what to think about comments like this one on Powers' Amazon page: "Margaret Fishback Powers did not write 'Footprints in the Sand.' It was written by Floyd Keaton of Red Oak, Iowa during WWII.. Please contact the Montgomery County Historical Society in Red Oak for more information."

An assistant at the historical society told me that Keaton claimed he wrote "Footprints" in June 1944, after he fought at Omaha Beach on D-Day. He copyrighted the poem in 1997, she said, though I couldn't find it in copyright records.

One thing Carty, Stevenson, and Powers share is tragedy. Margaret Powers' 106-page memoir begins with her daughter Paula falling into a whirlpool and over a 68-foot waterfall, landing in a 40-foot-deep glacier pool. At the same moment, Powers' husband, Paul, collapsed with a heart attack. Twice a year, Paul got pneumonia and once tripped and broke his leg "like a yard stick cracking." (To their amazement, God, answering the family's prayers, instantaneously healed the broken bones.)

In 1963, Powers, then a teacher, was leading a class when a bolt of lightning flashed through an open window and struck her. Sparks "flew from the ends of my fingers," she wrote, and she was thrown to the ground. She got up, dusted herself off, and continued teaching. She has been hit by a truck, her heart stopped during child delivery, and a bee sting almost killed her. A close friend, a composer who was planning to set "Footprints" to music as a wedding gift to Margaret and Paul, was "fatally injured in an inner-city accident" before their 1965 nuptials. Paula was nearly killed when a Harley Davidson fell on her.

Powers draws spiritual assurance from these events. Contemplating whether she was spending too much time on the road with her Christian ministry, she says God "got my attention" with a sudden tornado. "Animals were being blown away," she writes, "and we watched, horror-stricken, as a van we'd been following, loaded with nuns, was blown right off the hill." Shaken, Powers turned this tragedy into a poem about Jesus called, "Letter from a Friend," in which the Lord says, "Then I shouted to you in a tornado.I have a special task for you. I hope you will talk to me soon."

It's tempting to say that "Footprints" was the task the Lord had in mind. But the poem had been written years before, when she and Paul had become engaged and she was steeling herself to tell her family. As he recounted in his own book, "Too Tough to Cry," Paul had a troubled past, beginning with the early death of his mother, a violently drunken father whose prostitute companion turned tricks in the house, and Paul's arrest for murder at age 12. Converted to Christianity while on release from prison, he met Margaret in the bookstore where he worked.

As the couple strolled the beach discussing their bleak prospects for marriage, Powers writes, they noticed their footprints. After a moment of silence, Paul said: "Margie, when the most troublesome times come, that neither one of us can handle, that's when the Lord will carry us both." Powers made a poetic connection between their footprints in the sand and Paul's comment about trusting in God.

Mary Stevenson and Carolyn Carty have their own stories to tell. Often abused by her father after her mother's death, Stevenson earned money (and the nickname "the White Cracker") during the Depression by dancing on street corners, eventually becoming a showgirl at Philadelphia's Troc Theater. She was just 14 when, locked out of her house on a winter night, she saw a neighbor's cat walk across the snow, leaving its paw prints. She found a pencil and scribbled the poem, trying to imagine herself on a warm beach.

The trauma Carty endured has left much of her early life a blur. After her mother's nervous breakdown, she went to Chicago to live with her father and his girlfriend. "My father and this girl were blatant alcoholics," Carty said. "They threw parties all the time and knew nothing about raising children," of which they had two of their own. In 1976, a stranger attacked her with a hunting knife. She survived but had a nervous breakdown. In the late 90s, Carty was assaulted again. "Someone hit me with a full-on deathblow to the face," Carty said. "It broke my nose, broke my neck, and bruised half my face. And he continued to assault me."

"I don't think these attacks were random," Carty told me on the phone from Washington state. "I believe they were caused by someone who knows that I wrote 'Footprints.' I had an attorney recently tell me, 'Carolyn, if you'd ever collected all the money that this item has made, do you have any idea how much you'd have?' Do you see what I'm saying?"

Carty has contacted companies that use her 1986 copyrighted version, which begins "One night a man had a dream"--Powers' starts "One night I had a dream"-demanding payment. Cedco Publishing, which produces "Footprints" calendars with her opening line, "has sold over two million copies of my 'Footprints' in calendars alone," she said. "I figure they owe me at least $500,000 in back royalties, and that doesn't include infringement fines." Cedco has told her that her version has been in public use since at least the 1930s. The company didn't respond to requests for an interview.

Carty told me that she's recently signed a deal with a "major distributor" that serves 10,000 Christian bookstores, though she refuses to mention the company's name. She also plans to sue Margaret Powers for infringement.

The question of authorship might be settled if someone could produce an early version attributed to Stevenson that would trump the two later claims, but none has surfaced. Powers lost her original copies in a move in 1980, but she has a copy that was pasted in her 1965 wedding album and discovered decades later. A relative of Floyd Keaton purportedly has a 1944 copy of Keaton's handwritten poem. The paper on which Mary Stevenson's 1939 copy was printed has been forensically authenticated as circa 1940 stock. Carty is the only claimant without an existing original. "My decoupaged 'Footprints' puzzle and plaque were either thrown away," Carty told me, "or my aunt buried them with my uncle."

Nevertheless, dated paper doesn't seem to advance anyone's claim. While touting his mother's 1939 copy, Stevenson's son Basil pooh-poohs the copy in Margaret Powers' wedding album. "Anyone could write the poem on some old paper, stick it in a book, and claim it was the original. What does that prove?"

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