March 2008 Column Winner

American, British pen-pals shared life's journeys for 60 years

By Andy Rieger, The Norman Transcript

The year was 1947 and post-war England needed even more of our help. Americans and their British counterparts had fought the good fight together and won a war that would change the world forever. This time, however, it was the pen not the sword that was needed to make and seal lasting friendships.

American schoolchildren were being encouraged to adopt a British pen pal to lift that country's spirits. Bombs had reduced many cities and towns to rubble. Like Americans, nearly every British family was touched by the war.

Many fathers and brothers never made it home. The bombs had stopped but kids were still scared and a comforting word from across the pond would be welcome in any family's mail.

One of those frightened children was Joan Dawson. She was 12 years old and had an aunt who lived in Guthrie. On a visit to England, the aunt brought a Guthrie telephone directory with her and encouraged Joan to write to an Oklahoma school principal in search of American pen pal possibilities.

Ten-year-old Patti Gumerson of Guthrie drew the lucky assignment. Her first letter to Joan began a 60-year correspondence and friendship. It came to an end with Patti Gipson's death in January. Outside of family cards and letters, few such relationships ever last six decades.

The letters, saved over the years by both women, are reminders that life is but a journey, not a destination. They recount grade school accomplishments, college, both women's marriages, children and careers. There were new addresses, grandchildren, family joys and sorrows.

"She was a wonderful person and achieved so much in her life both for her family and the community," Joan wrote following Patti's death.

Patti's illness and passing sent Joan back to her own letter box for comfort. She had only recently thrown out some dispatches, mostly from Patti's earlier years and from her college days at the University of Oklahoma. Patti was valedictorian of her Guthrie High School class of 1955 and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from OU in 1958. She and Fred raised three children and lived in Washington, Seminole and Norman. Joan and her husband, also named Fred, raised two children in England.

There was a break in the letters in the early 1960s, busy times for both women. It soon picked back up and the two met in London in 1977 for a long weekend. They brought their husbands along.

"Over the years I could not afford to go to the U.S. and when I was due to come two years ago I had to cancel as I had a serious fall," Joan said.

Then Joan lost her own husband. She scheduled another trip to the states but lost her nerve as she didn't want to be a burden on Patti if she were to become ill over here.

The two eventually made the transition from handwritten letters to e-mail but letters and cards were for saving and savoring. Sadly, we seldom take the time to write letters anymore. It's a lifelong art form learned in kindergarten and quickly forgotten when life gets busy and technology rules us.

Nowadays, it's a cell phone call, a text message, e-mail, fax or mass distribution Christmas letter, all easily deleted from life's memory box. With simple handwritten letters, Patti and Joan kept a dialogue alive for 60 years across thousands of miles.

"Reading what I have now I remember things about my own life and hers lived through our letters," Joan said. "She was my heroine and I miss her so much."