Readers share personal accounts of their pen pals.
Hawaiian Pen Pal: Carolyn has kept the letters from her pen pal for more than 50 years.
In today’s world, writing letters is almost obsolete, and Facebook (a social networking website where people can keep in touch with friends and family on the Internet) has taken the place of pen pals. For people who use Facebook, the more names they can tie into and add as “friends,” the more contact they have with friends and family. However, they don’t know what they’re missing by using Facebook instead of having actual pen pals.
Writing letters to a pen pal – or anybody in your life for that matter – means sharing your life and feelings with a person, then waiting in anticipation for days – or what used to be weeks – to receive a written response in the mail.
I didn’t have a special boyfriend in high school, and maybe that’s why I liked the idea of having a pen pal from overseas. I don’t remember where I heard about the pen pal program, or where I got Robert’s name, but I began a pen pal relationship with this young man from England.
We wrote many letters back and forth and exchanged numerous photographs over a few years. I learned some interesting things about England, and I assume he learned some interesting things about my life in the United States of America.
After graduation, we both got busy with other activities, and we stopped writing. But it was an experience I’ve never forgotten, and one that will always remind me of a time when communication was something that was more personal and not done over the Internet through social networking websites like Facebook.
Nola - Bartlesville, Oklahoma
Barbara and I have written each other weekly for some 40 years now. Her daughter was 13, and Barbara had just turned 53 when their family packed up and moved after being our neighbors for 10 years.
Barbara and I were stay-at-home moms, and while our husbands were at work, we discussed budgets, children, in-laws, world affairs and everything else over coffee every weekday morning. When Barbara’s family moved to another state, our friendship remained strong.
Through letters, I learned of their new home and the happenings in their lives. We swapped recipes, discussed the different fashions, compared school and church activities, and shared all aspects of our daily lives.
As time went by, we began sending graduation announcements, wedding invitations and birth announcements of our grandchildren. I returned to college, and we both began careers outside our homes, although our marriages continued to be our main focus. Pictures of grandchildren’s proms, quilts under construction, and clippings of published writings or articles of interest passed each other in the mail. And every few years, our families enjoyed visits either here or there.
Both of us are widows now, and we’ve wept together with shared sorrow and have helped each other move ahead in faith that life is still good.
When a piece of news needs immediate response, we e-mail or call, but we still enjoy using a word processor to type our two-page letters to each other.
While much has changed in our lives, the one thing we can count on is that every Thursday, we will find a letter from one another in our mailboxes. Our pen pal connection has enriched our lives.
Jeannetta - St. Joseph, Missouri
If ever there was a contest that would decide who is the best pen pal in the world, my friend and pen pal Violet would win, hands down.
We have been communicating through letters for close to eight years, and she has been the greatest companion and friend a man could ever ask for. We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs together.
When I go through a rough time, she is always there to give me encouragement to make it through. For instance, my mother passed away three years ago, and Violet was there for me to help me through that very trying time. And I’ve always tried to be there for her, too, to give her guidance and encouragement when I knew she needed it.
Violet is legally blind and has to use a machine to help her write her letters to me. I am grateful to have found a pen pal friend who is so driven and who enjoys making a difference in the lives of others – and she does. She has been a blessing in my life.
I encourage everyone to find a pen pal and form a relationship. It’s a great thing.
Kenneth - Mauston, Wisconsin
I remember it like it was yesterday. Seated in the loneliness of the dining hall midmorning, I would have 10 or 12 letters, all addressed to “Any Service Member,” scattered on the table. During such breaks, it was always a mad rush to get a few lines off to the unknown schoolchildren back in the United States who had taken the time to write. In a testament to the spirit and patriotism of the American people, these pen pal letters swamped our military postal system.
Those young pen pals asked the most innocent questions, which always managed to bring tears to my eyes.
“Do you miss your mom?”
“How often can you take a bath?”
“Have you met General Schwarzkopf?”
Eventually, I’d check the time and realize it was futile to try and answer them all, so I’d gather them up and return to my quarters, where I would stuff them under my pillow with the letters I’d failed to answer yesterday ... and the day before, and the day before that and so on. Then I would sit on the edge of my bunk and snatch a homemade cookie from a care package that another child had sent.
I would leave my quarters with a smile on my face to catch the bus down to the squadron area. It was January 1991, Operation Desert Storm was in full swing, and I had to fly another mission over Kuwait.
While riding on a dilapidated bus and staring out the window at the sand, a line from one of that morning’s letters popped back into my head. The line read: “Thank you for your service.” When I thought about it, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Thank me? No. Thank you for mailing me the inspiration for another day. Thank you for the motivation to complete the mission. And thank you for the reminder that I live in the greatest country on Earth.”
John - Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
One day in May 1956, my seventh-grade English teacher started class, and as usual, I wasn’t paying attention. Then I realized Miss Nelson was talking about something fun. She had a list of students who wanted pen pals. The rule was that girls had to choose girl pen pals and boys had to pick boy pen pals. I eagerly looked at the list and chose a girl named Rosie Alota from Honolulu, Hawaii.
That evening, I wrote a letter to Rosie, and the long wait for a return letter began. I finally received a letter in October that read: “I got your letter dated on the month of May. I have a terrific confession to tell you. My name is not Rosie Alota, it is Donald Rico. I didn’t know my cousin put my name as Rosie Alota, so I hope you forgive me.”
We exchanged a few letters within the next year, then he told me he wouldn’t be able to write very often because he was busy with church and school activities. He ended each letter with “P.S. Write soon, God Bless you and family. Always, your pel pal and Aloha.”
I have five letters – each with a 6-cent airmail stamp – and a picture of Donald that have been tucked away safely for more than 50 years.
Although we only shared a brief part of our lives, I smiled as I read those letters today, and wondered how Donald’s life has turned out.
Carolyn - Sutherland, Iowa
My love for writing letters started many, many years ago. My mom had beautiful handwriting and was a great letter writer. Back in those days, letters were the most common way to communicate, as long-distance phone calls were expensive.
My brothers – five of them – were all in the service, and I wrote to them often.
So it was only natural for me to want to volunteer to be a pen pal. I now belong to RSVP, which stands for Retired Senior Volunteer Program. Each year, a different school in the county is chosen, and volunteers are assigned a pen pal. The students are usually in fourth or fifth grade, and we correspond with them throughout the school year.
It’s fun to get to know these youngsters and learn things about their lives. Some are chatty, while others are not.
One year, I wrote to a boy who was definitely “a man of few words.” I didn’t know so many questions could have one-word answers until I met him.
I worked for 30 years in the school cafeteria, so one of my favorite questions to ask my young pen pals is what their favorite lunch is. Pizza, hamburgers and fries, and hot dogs seem to be the top responses.
Through RSVP, there is usually a day set aside for a pen pal party, in which the volunteers get the opportunity to meet our pen pals. Again, some are quite talkative, and others are shy.
I sponsor a child in Guatemala, who is now in fourth grade, and I correspond with him as well, but his letters have to be interpreted for him. He sends me a photograph every couple of years.
I still communicate through hand-written letters to many of my longtime friends, whom I also consider pen pals. There is just something special about receiving a letter in the mail from a friend.
We, of RSVP, hope we will be writing to pen pals for a long time, as each year we have a new and interesting person to correspond with. And in today’s world of e-mails and text messaging, I think we all benefit from the personal connection that having a pen pal gives us.
Norma - Waterville, Kansas
My first pen pal relationship started in 1944, during World War II. My brother, Harry, who was in the military, was stationed in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada. One day, Harry showed his best buddy, Norm, a photograph of me. Norm then wrote me a letter. I replied to his letter, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Norm and I continued corresponding for a year before we met in person. When the soldiers were given furloughs, Harry brought Norm home with him. Norm was considerate and thoughtful – and extremely
handsome. Our friendship blossomed, and by the end of the year, we were married in McPherson, Kansas.
My new husband and I soon took a bus to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where the soldiers were stationed for two months. From there, the boys were deported to Germany for a year. So, the exchanging of letters started all over again.
This year, Norm and I will celebrate 66 happy years together. Thank you, brother Harry, for sharing your best friend with me for all these years.
Susan - St. Joseph, Missouri
“Are you some sort of secret agent?” the postman asked me one day.
“Of course not,” I replied, “What makes you think that?”
“You’re always getting letters from Russia and East Germany, and I don’t know where all,” he said.
“Oh,” I replied, “I play chess with people in those countries. We mail our moves back and forth.”
Still seeming skeptical, he said, “I wouldn’t think you’d need to write letters to send a chess move.”
“No, but you know how it is. We get interested in each other and the places where we live, so we usually write a note along with our moves,” I explained.
“Oh,” he said, losing interest.
The truth is that, in correspondence chess, I’ve found a great way to open conversations with fascinating people, especially when playing international tournaments. Games could last a couple of years, and by the end of the games, I would know a lot about my opponents.
I remember a player in France who only wanted to write about philosophy. Another player, an East German, tried to teach me the language. Most of the Russians I’ve played chess with were more reserved, with the conversations being mainly about chess. An Israeli rabbi and I exchanged thoughts about Judaism and Christianity, while a Japanese player wrote very descriptively about his country and traditions. Another player, an Englishman, simply wanted to apologize for his country’s colonial past.
I was amazed at how well the English language was spoken and written around the world. While I essayed to use some of the languages with which I am familiar, I was stumbling along, while most of my pen pals wrote quite well in extremely grammatical English.
The computer has put an end to correspondence chess now, but I’m glad I didn’t miss out on the fun of having so many interesting pen pals from so many different parts of the world.
James - Hartley, Iowa
I’ve had a total of four pen pals through the years.
A Sunday school paper is where I found my first pen pal. She was 11 years old and lived in Maine. I was 12 and lived in Colorado. We wrote to each other about school, books and movies, and other things young girls enjoyed back then.
When we got into high school, we didn’t write as often, but we still kept in touch. After we had both married, she and her husband surprised my husband and me when they stopped at our home while on vacation. We kept in touch for some time after their visit, but eventually lost touch with one another.
In 1992, after my mother’s death, I inherited Mother’s pen pal, who lives in England. Although we don’t write each other often, we do exchange birthday and Christmas letters each year, and it’s always nice to hear from her.
My dearest pen pal and I wrote to one another for more than 40 years. We met through a poem I had published in a magazine. She contacted me, and since she, too, wrote poetry, we became pen pals, and our letters became discussions of our poetry.
We lived 60 miles apart, so we visited each other’s homes from time to time, and we discovered we had more in common than just writing poetry. We are both the oldest child and only girl in our families, with four brothers. We both taught in a country school, and we have children who share a birthday.
This dear friend now lives in a nursing home. She has memory problems, but she always knows me when I call. She is no longer able to write letters, and I miss corresponding with her. However, at least I’m still able to talk to her on the phone.
About a year ago, history repeated itself, but in reverse. I read a poem in a magazine and recognized the author as someone I’d met in a writing group I’d attended nearly 20 years before. I made contact this time, and we have since become pen pals and enjoy critiquing each other’s poetry. We write at least once a month.
Through the years, I can honestly say that whenever I’ve found – and still find – a letter in my mailbox from a pen pal, it lifts my mood and makes for a very happy day. And I can’t wait to read it.
Faye - Broken Bow, Nebraska
I have many dear pen pals, and each one is a blessing in his or her own way. I have things in common with all of them, but not the same things. However, the one thing we all have in common is a strong Christian faith.
Lorraine has been in my life the longest, as we’ve been corresponding with each other for 21 years. She and her husband once came and stayed with my family for nearly a week.
I also enjoy keeping in touch with Christine, Ethel, Ruth and Deloris. And I can’t forget Jesse and June, who lived in different states. I talked about both of them to each other, and June asked for Jesse’s address. I sent it to her, and they began writing one another and fell in love. They got married and came to visit me on their honeymoon. They were in their 70s at the time, and we had a lot of fun.
I thank God for all of the wonderful pen pals in my life. What precious friends they are, and I’m blessed that I’ve been lucky enough to meet most of them.
Joyce - Windsor, Missouri
When I was 10 years old, I was reading a paper and noticed an advertisement of sorts from a girl wanting a pen pal. She had the same birthday, including the same year, as me, so I wrote to her.
We wrote to each another for a few months, then quit. Life went on, but I never forgot her name or the name of the town where she lived.
When I was in my 40s, my family lived in Iowa. My oldest daughter’s best friend had a younger brother, and I sometimes baby-sat for him. One day after I’d baby-sat him, his mother, Donna, came to pick him up, and she paid me with a check.
I noticed that the bank listed on the check was in the same town where my young pen pal had lived in 1946. I made a comment about it to Donna, telling her about my pen pal, and a moment later, she said, “That was me!”
Reva - Junction City, Kansas
I started writing to pen pals when I was in sixth grade. Eventually, we stopped writing, though, and for some unknown reason, I never had pen pals again until several years ago.
Thanks to the quarterly magazine BRAVE HEARTS (a sister publication to CAPPER’S that is no longer published), I found a new pen pal friend.
I sent many stories to BRAVE HEARTS and had several of them published. I soon noticed that almost every time I had a story published, so did a woman named Susan. Susan noticed this also, and one day I received the nicest letter from her. We have been corresponding ever since.
We have a lot in common, but are also opposites in some ways. We both enjoy writing, belong to the Lutheran church, are in sewing groups, and we share the same wedding anniversary. We both are enjoying our senior years, and we both still drive. However, while I enjoy looking at art, I have no talent for drawing, but Susan is a beautiful artist.
Susan and I correspond about twice a month, and we share a sister-like relationship. We have exchanged photographs, and another thing we have in common is that we both have gray hair and wear glasses.
Although we live several miles apart, in different states, and haven’t met yet, we hope that some day we will.
Maxine - Exira, Iowa
I have had pen pals for most of my 83 years. It’s a great way to get acquainted with people outside your area.
In 1940, at age 13, I was stricken with acute polio and was hospitalized for many months to undergo treatment. A girl from Alpena, Michigan, and a girl from California were in the hospital at the same time I was, and we befriended each other. It helped us to talk and share our experiences with polio. After leaving the hospital, we continued our friendship as pen pals.
I presently have pen pals in California, Indiana, Arkansas and Georgia, as well as a few other locations, though less frequently. I have learned that to be a good pen pal, you have to respond to each letter you receive. You also have to write regularly with updates on family highlights and activities, and you have to lend praise and encouragement whenever it’s needed, whether in good times or in bad.
Georgia has been my pen pal the longest, beginning when I was in second grade. We had lived in the same neighborhood and started kindergarten together. We loved every day we were together. Then Georgia and her family moved to Indiana. We missed each other terribly, and we began mailing notes to each other to stay connected. When we married, we got very busy and drifted apart.
Years later, Georgia and her sister Ruth tracked me down, and when my husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness, they drove straight to my house. What an emotional reunion. We have never lost touch since reuniting that day 15 years ago.
My friend Starrlette and I met through a magazine we both wrote for and through a cookbook I published. Our friendship lasted 25 years, until her death in 1999. Some of her words have remained with me through the years as I reflect on what a gifted writer she was.
Fifteen years ago, Carol and Larry, a delightful couple from California, found my name and address in a magazine where I had a recipe published. They wrote, and we have been pen pals since. They love to cook and travel, and they love their grandchildren as much as I love mine.
I strongly encourage pen pal relationships. My husband was in the military, and we traveled to the reunions for many years. Since my husband died, the World War II Army families have stayed in touch with me.
I believe pen pals certainly enrich the lives of each other.
Phyllis - Three Rivers, Michigan
When my mother asked if I would be interested in responding to an article in a magazine in which pen pals were being matched up, I was more than interested.
The year was 1952, and I was an 11-year-old farm girl living near Farmington, Iowa. I was eager for a pen pal.
Shortly after responding to the article, a letter with a Liverpool, England, postmark arrived in the mail. My pen pal was a 13-year-old girl named Maureen. We began corresponding, writing in detail about my life on the farm, and her life in a large seaport city.
When I was in high school, I got a part-time job, and every payday, I would tuck away a little money from my check. When Maureen invited me to visit her in England, I was happy I’d been saving my money. Luckily, I had enough money to accept her invitation.
So, in the summer of 1959, I flew to England, to visit Maureen. It was very exciting, and she and her family took me on a wonderful tour of their country.
Through the years, our letters to one another have included news of marriages, jobs, births of children (including my daughter who was given my pen pal’s name) and grandchildren, and deaths of family members.
I happily returned to England to visit a second time when Maureen and I were both young married women. More recently, we were able to get together again when Maureen came to the United States to see a new grandchild in California.
Maureen and I still keep in touch, and letters are now occasionally supplemented by telephone calls and e-mails. Our long-distance friendship has been a happy part of my life, and it continues to bring me much pleasure and happiness some 58 years after it began.
Romona - Grinnell, Iowa
My experience with pen pals began after World War II, as a school assignment, when I was in fifth grade. I wrote to several girls in Germany and one girl in England. My great-grandparents were from Germany, and I was excited, hoping to learn more about their country. We wrote about our families and sent photos. It was a lot of fun, and we shared our letters with our classmates. It was interesting to learn about the different customs in their countries. We also exchanged a few small gifts.
Then, in 1947, a friend told me her pen pal, who was a boy, had a friend who would like to correspond with someone in the United States. My friend sent my name and address to her pen pal, and he gave it to his friend, Herbert.
A few months later, I received a letter and some photographs from Herbert, who lived in the Russian sector of Berlin. We began writing back and forth to each other, and we wrote often. By the time I got into high school, Herbert was my only pen pal.
One day, I received a tape recording from him, but I couldn’t find a tape recorder that was equipped with the right speed for a German tape. I took it to the radio station in Spencer, Iowa, and not only was the station able to play the tape for me, they also recorded it onto a 78 rpm record so I could play it at home. It was exciting to hear Herbert’s voice for the first time. I later went back to the radio station and recorded a tape for him. We talked only about our families and kept our letters on a personal level.
I got married in February 1955, and Herbert married a young woman named Helga soon after. My husband and I had three children, and Herbert and Helga had one son. Some years later, when their son was very young, Helga was struck with polio. She was left paralyzed from the chest down and was hospitalized for nearly a year, but she was alive and had a wonderful husband to care for her when she went home.
In 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up, Herbert was unable to leave East Berlin. A lot of people were escaping, but Herbert would not leave his wheelchair-bound wife and son. We continued writing each other, and one day I received a letter from him telling me to send my letters to his friend Johan, who lived in West Berlin. Johan then smuggled my letters into East Berlin on the occasional visiting days when the East Berlin government let friends and family members living in West Berlin visit people in East Berlin. Johan also smuggled Herbert’s letters out and mailed them to me. This went on for several years before Herbert said I could send letters directly to him again. However, the letters were opened and read before he received them. Nothing to worry about, though, because we only wrote about ourselves and our families.
In the mid-1970s, I wrote Herbert a letter and sent it with a Christmas card, like always, but I never heard back from him. I continued sending letters and cards for three more years, and still no reply. Knowing Helga couldn’t read English and wondering if Herbert had died or was in prison, I finally quit sending them.
When the Berlin Wall opened in November 1989, my husband and I watched the televised reports showing all the people celebrating as the people from East Berlin crossed into West Berlin. I was hoping to see Herbert or his family, but never did. Then I began wondering if any of them were even alive all these years later. I thought about writing another letter to him, but never did.
Then, one day in January 1991, my husband answered the phone, and it was a long-distance call from Berlin for me. I figured it was Herbert’s son, but as soon as I took the phone, I heard a voice say, “Hello, Marilyn. This is your pen pal, Herbert.” I couldn’t believe it. He’d had two neighbor girls who were learning English give him a refresher course so he could call me. We talked and talked, and he promised he would visit later that year. We began writing again, and the letters flew back and forth as we made plans for his trip to the United States.
The day finally came, and I can’t even begin to explain how excited Herbert and I were to finally meet one another.
I had asked Herbert to bring a couple of pieces of the Berlin Wall with him when he came so I could have a piece of the wall that had kept us apart for so many years. I turned one of the pieces – along with a
note he wrote telling where he got the pieces – into a decorative piece of decor.
Herbert said he had received my letters in the 1970s, but he was working as a courier for the Russian government and was not allowed to write back. He said he and Helga were disappointed when the letters and Christmas cards stopped coming.
The following year, my husband and I flew to Germany to visit Herbert and his family. We saw a lot of interesting places and met some very friendly people. I was even able to meet Herbert’s wonderful friend, Johan, who had smuggled our letters back and forth for us. I was glad I could thank him in person.
On the morning we were leaving, we found out that a bomb left from World War II had exploded the day before in the area where we had been visiting earlier in the day. Apparently a number of World War II bombs had landed in the sand and sank down, never exploding. Years later, with all the traffic passing over the top of the bombs, they became unstable and would blow up occasionally. It was scary to know that we could have been among the people injured or killed in the explosion.
It was a wonderful experience visiting Herbert in Germany, and I’m also glad he was able to visit the United States.
My husband passed away in 2001, and Helga passed away in 2002. Herbert and I still keep in touch, but he doesn’t like to write anymore, so he calls instead. However, his hearing is getting bad, so, he does most of the talking, telling me what’s going on in his life, then I write him a letter so I can tell him what’s going on in mine.
We both wish we lived closer so we could see each other and visit more often. Herbert turned 80 in August, and I turned 76 in July. Due to health reasons, neither of us is able to travel that far, so we keep in touch through phone calls and letters.
August marked 63 years of our pen pal friendship. We are great friends and will continue to be friends until one of us passes on. The one still living will receive a letter from the family of the one who passes away. Our children know this is our wish, and they have all agreed to honor it.
Marilyn - Estherville, Iowa
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