Hello from the other side: Saint John and Australian pen pals meet after 57 years

·3 min read
Wendy Simon from Saint John has an emotional hug with Wendy McIlwraith of Australia as the two penpals meet at the Saint John Airport for the first after 57 years of corresponding. (Megan MacAlpine/CBC - image credit)
Wendy Simon from Saint John has an emotional hug with Wendy McIlwraith of Australia as the two penpals meet at the Saint John Airport for the first after 57 years of corresponding. (Megan MacAlpine/CBC - image credit)

Back in the mid-1960s, two 10-year-old girls living a world apart put pen to paper, forging a lifetime of letters and long-distance friendship.

On Thursday, 57 years since they became pen pals, Wendy Simon of Saint John and Wendy McIlwraith of Australia met for the first time.

Their meeting at the Saint John Airport was filled with smiles and hugs born of the many letters exchanged over the years.

Megan MacAlpine/CBC
Megan MacAlpine/CBC

"Neither of us are getting any younger ... there's little health issues it'll start to crop up." said McIlwraith, who was visiting friends in Toronto.

"So it was kind of like, if I don't do it now, it ain't going to happen."

Kangaroos and koala bears

Sitting in her Saint John classroom thinking about Australia, Wendy Simon's imagination conjured up pictures of kangaroos and koala bears. These were, after all, pre-internet times. She couldn't discover images of that faraway land with a simple keystroke.

One day her class was asked if the students wanted to correspond with a pen pal in a different country.

"They matched us up and the rest is history," said Simon.

WATCH: Wendy Simon and Wendy McIlwraith meet face-to-face at the Saint John Airport

And what was in that first letter sent all the way to the other side of the world?

"I asked her if she had kangaroos running around in her backyard," Simon said.

McIlwraith, who lived in the city of Toowoomba three hours west of Brisbane, said she did in fact have kangaroos in her backyard.

"I live on a property in the bush with kangaroos in the backyard. No koalas though. I'm sorry. Never seen a koala."

While the prospect of having a pen pal has faded in the age of social media, it still holds a nostalgic power over those who had one.

"It was the novelty of writing somebody on the other side of the world," Simon said.

McIlwraith added, "Back in those days … we didn't even have TV when we started corresponding. My family didn't have a car, we didn't have a telephone."

"I suppose it was a little bit of dedication as well, you know. It wasn't an easy thing to do ... you had to really sit down and think about and put the effort into it, so it was a different level of consciousness."

LISTEN: A tale of two Wendys: The CBC's Megan MacAlpine speaks to both women about what the meeting means for them

When Simon was in high school she recalls travelling to California with her parents.

"I got back, I wrote her 17 pages, both sides of looseleaf, with every detail from the minute I left to the minute I landed back home again."

Simon even managed to introduce some of her classmates to McIlwraith by passing notes behind the teacher's back.

"I never got caught, and I would get my classmates just to write, 'Hi, Wendy. How you doing? My name is John Doe.' I would always do that just for a kick."

The story of the two Wendys is also the story of how a friendship grows and blossoms.

"There's a foundation to that," said Simon.

"And even if you are on the other side of the world, that foundation is established. So, you know, like with any good friend that might live next door, live down the road, live in another city, live in another country … [they're] just part of your life."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting