More than a half-century has passed since Bonnie Byalick-Levine, who was 12 and living in Bayside, fired off her first airmail letter to Annette Holman, a girl the same age who lived in Sydney, Australia.
The pen pals corresponded throughout high school, college, adulthood, broken romances, marriages, careers and children, but had never met in person.
Together, they decided to change that. On a Sunday afternoon in April, the long-distance friends headed to a diner on Manhattan's West Side for their first in-person meeting.
Clutching an American flag and a floral bouquet, Byalick-Levine, now 63, flung open the restaurant door and embraced a teary Holman, who was waiting in the foyer. Clearly, their husbands, Andrew Holman, who is 58, and Neil Levine, 67, who were there for support, knew this day was not about them, and they quietly chatted while waiting for their wives to catch up and set the day's agenda.
For the next two hours, the jubilant pen pals sat side by side in a booth, hunched over a handful of the more than 300 letters they had exchanged since 1962. "It is so exciting to finally meet you," Holman, now 64, told Byalick-Levine. "It is so nice to hug you. Never meeting a friend face-to-face isn't right."
Their long-term relationship and rendezvous defied dictionary.com's definition for pen pal: "a person with whom one keeps up an exchange of letters, usually someone so far away that a personal meeting is unlikely."
There are no statistics on pen pal pairings, but the practice of putting pen to paper to correspond to a new, far-flung friend may have gotten its start in 1913, says librarian James Mantegna of the Baldwin Public Library. Mantegna cited an online reference to a magazine called The Gregg Writer, which sponsored an international pen pal club to help writers strengthen their shorthand skills.
Red Cross boosts pen pals
After World War I, Mantegna says, a junior division of the American Red Cross, popularized the practice as a way to bridge the cultural and geographic gap between schoolchildren in the United States and Europe.
Byalick-Levine, a Huntington homemaker who has three stepchildren, remembers her enthusiasm when she and Holman started exchanging letters. "Being a pen pal was the most exciting thing in your life," she says. "You would try to cram as much as you could into the letter."
It all started when Byalick-Levine's eighth-grade teacher posted a list of available pen pals from English-speaking countries. About that time, Holman remembers, she saw an ad in the children's section of her weekend newspaper for youngsters who wanted an "American pen friend."
Byalick-Levine says she knew nothing about Australia then, but was intrigued by the country because it was "on the other side of the world." In her first letter to Holman, she described her life as a student at Marie Curie Junior High School No. 158 in Bayside.
"After that letter, I remember sending her a package with chewing gum and candy, because I thought they didn't have gum in Australia," Byalick-Levine recalls.
Koala for Gettysburg Address
Holman, who is a high school art teacher in New South Wales, says, "As a kid, I was excited about the pen pal relationship and interested in a copy of the Gettysburg address and the book 'Gone With the Wind' Bonnie had also sent me."
In return, she sent her new friend a toy koala bear, an Australian calendar and boomerang and discussed "what school was like, my family and spending weekends and after school on the beach when I wasn't studying," Holman says.
Though oceans apart, the women were in sync for years, attending high school, then college where they studied fine arts. Soon after graduating, both began teaching the discipline, though Byalick-Levine left the field for a career in fashion. The pair exchanged a steady stream of letters and cards that only slowed when Holman was raising her son and two daughters, but the two never lost touch.
"As we got older, we 'talked' about her children, our families, our mothers," says Byalick-Levine. "We corresponded about our lives."
There are minor differences. Holman, for instance, loves the country; Byalick-Levine enjoys being in the city. But parallels -- their love of art, shared values and the grief they experienced over the early deaths of their fathers -- helped to sustain their relationship. "We were just women with the common problems of other women," says Holman, who displays in her study an abstract etching by Byalick-Levine.
During several days of sightseeing in the city, they still had time to visit the Big Duck in Flanders, enjoy a lobster lunch in Baiting Hollow and take in the Hamptons before Holman returned home.
Their airmail letters were replaced long ago by newer technology. For more than 10 years, the women have been staying in contact through email. Now, they'll also start using Skype (Byalick-Levine wanted to meet in person first). But they won't completely forgo sending letters or cards, Holman says. "There's a mystique about getting a letter."
A PEN PAL CAN BE GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH
Experts say that corresponding with a pen pal can be beneficial to baby boomers and seniors.
"People might be surprised, but a really good pen pal relationship can be an important part of their social network," says Brian Sweeney, associate professor of sociology, at LIU Post.
"When you're going through important transitions like retirement, losing a spouse or suffering from a serious disease, having a robust social network buffers you against some of these assaults from life, and starting a new relationship can be a rewarding experience."
For homebound seniors, Sweeney says, "getting mail from a pen pal can be especially valued, akin to a visit, and can be a lifeline."
The Wantagh-based Student Letter Exchange (pen-pal.com) has been matching English-speaking pen pals, ages 9-20, since it began in 1926. But pen pals 55 and older now make up 20 percent of its business and is growing in popularity,the percentage of older pen pals is growing, spokeswoman Roberta Wolf says.
The service has an Adult Pen Pal Directory for letter writers 22 and older: The cost is $10.95. Pen pals "have to start corresponding with stationery through snail mail," she says. "They can switch to email afterward."