Remember pen pals?

In this hyperlinked fast-moving instant-gratification world of the 21st century, it is rare to get a proper letter by snail mail.

When I say “proper”, I mean a letter that is not unsolicited junk mail, a bank statement or an overdue account. I mean a letter from a friend or a family member on the other side of the world: a letter that is written by hand – by ink-filled fountain pen (oh! that would be such a treat!) on pretty paper, containing perhaps a photograph of a recent addition to the family or of an out-of-the-way place they visited.

Even postcards, on which you can barely fit in 10 legible lines (which may sound like quite a lot for some people I know), are rare in my postbox.

I find that rather sad.

In the days of my youth, I often listened to Radio Netherlands on short-wave radio. It was through Tom Meijers’ “Happy Station” (1982-1995) on Radio Netherlands that I found penpals not only throughout Europe – Germany, England, France, Austria, Norway, Denmark – and America, but also in more exotic and farflung destinations, like India, Nepal, Bhutan, the Philippines, Australia, and Suriname. 

I remember how many hours I spent writing letters to them – at first only by hand, and then more often on an elderly kaklungky typewriter, whose ribbon I had to replace every couple of months because I was typing so much. I LOVED the feeling and sound of the keys kerclacketting onto the paper. It made me feel like an AUTHOR! Fortunately for my poor sound-blasted neighbours, I eventually stopped using the typewriter because it became impossible to locate the specific spare ink-ribbons it needed.

So much love and attention to detail went into those letters – I included photos (not the digital ones that you get nowadays, which you can get printed in an hour or two, but the REAL ones, which took a week!) and special postcards and extra postage stamps (not those awful stick-on ones but the REAL ones, which you had to lick!) and pretty cards… And my pen pals did the same. So I learned all about their homes, their families, their friends, where they went to school, where they spent their holidays, what they wanted to be when they were older… I have kept almost all those letters, although it’s been a while since I looked at them. When I’m old and grey and bored, perhaps… 🙂

Only one of my penpals of those days has survived the conversion from snail-mail to email: my friend Bobz from a tiny place somewhere in the mountains of Kentucky! We’ve been writing to each other since 1986, so that’s 22 years. Although we’ve often spoken on the phone, we have not yet met face-to-face. But we’re both saving up!

Today, he sent me a link to an article that had appeared in a local newspaper under the heading “Friends meet to reminisce about 5o-year commitment as penpals” (copied below because I thought it was so cool).

50 years??? Bobz, we still have 28 to go!


Posted on Sun, Apr. 13, 2008

Friends meet to reminisce about 50-year commitment as pen pals

The Paducah Sun

The first sentence of Judy Harper Williams’ first letter to Betty Moebis Fawns in 1958 was straightforward and to the point. “Dear Betty,” Williams wrote, “will you be my pen pal?”

Fawns wrote back and so began a long-distance friendship that has taken them from the sixth grade to their 60s. Fawns, who lives in Didsbury, Alberta, Canada, recently spent two weeks at Williams’ Gilbertsville home celebrating their 50 years of friendship.

The women, both 61, shopped, visited the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green and Graceland in Memphis, Tenn., observed the rising waters of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and reminisced over old letters and photos. They visited Williams’ sixth-grade teacher, Phyllis Ringstaff, and friend, Shirley Ward Kirk, who also wrote to Fawns for a time. They also planned to attend Tater Day in Benton.

“I’ve been hearing about it all these years,” Fawns said. “I think I probably have most of (the letters). I’m a keeper. And I’m sure we both have albums of our children and grandchildren. Most of it has been on paper. Only in about the last three years have we done e-mail.”

Fawns’ sixth-grade class was studying the United States in 1958, and she wrote a student at Sharpe Elementary School whose name she had seen in a children’s magazine.

“The textbook was Our Friendly Neighbors,’ which I have a copy,” said Fawns, who then lived in Saskatchewan. “I think at the time pen pals were very popular.”

Williams said her male classmate wasn’t interested in writing to a girl, so he gave her Fawns’ address.

“I could not wait to get home and write this letter,” Williams said. “I told her we had snow on the ground here. Snow was fascinating to us, but she wrote about these mounds and mounds of snow. I saw an article in the Paducah Sun-Democrat with notes on how to write to a pen pal, and I would cover every one of those subjects.”

Besides the geographical differences, the two girls discovered a shared interest in 4-H, sports and Elvis Presley.

“She participated in curling, and I had no idea what that was,” Williams said. “I thought, Was she curling her hair?’ And I was a cheerleader, and they didn’t have cheerleaders up there.”

The friends didn’t speak on the phone until they were out of high school and continued communicating mostly through letters. Fawns celebrated her 30th birthday by visiting Williams for the first time in 1976. By that time, they had seven children, all under the age of 7, between them.

“She never seemed like a stranger,” Williams said. “I thought this is my sister, and she’s here finally. We had confided in each other our deepest, darkest secrets, and we were safe with each other.”

Fawns visited Kentucky again for her 50th birthday in 1996. Williams visited Fawns in 1998, and the two drove to Saskatchewan to see where she had grown up. They now talk on the phone and write long letters several times a year, but communicate via e-mail frequently.

The women visited Williams’ mother every day in the nursing home during their most recent visit.

“She has Alzheimer’s and she doesn’t remember a lot, but she knows Betty,” Williams said. “She told her, ‘You are my other daughter.'”

“It’s like Judy said,” Fawns added, “she’s my sister, but she’s more than a sister. When you consider the fact we were total strangers and we sought each other out, it is amazing. We went through our teen years and we went through boyfriends and all phases of our lives, from being girls to women to wives and mothers and now grandmothers. We grew up together, and now we’re growing old together.”


4 thoughts on “Remember pen pals?

    • Hello Piotr – lovely to hear from a fellow fan of Happy Station. No, sadly we weren’t penpals in those days. I remember when I signed up for the penpal club, I was sent a list of people with similar interests around the world, or people who were looking for penpals in my country – no computers or email in those early days! I ended up writing to over about two dozen people all over the world: the Philippines, India, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Germany (East and West), France, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Italy, Australia, Norway, the US, and Suriname (in South America); some of them were penpals for many years. Do you still have those penpals, Piotr?

      Only one of those penpals of mine is still around now – my dear friend Bobz in America. I wrote about that memorable, emotional day we finally met face to face for the very first time, 25 years after first writing to each other:

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