For seven decades they’ve shared their happiest and saddest moments — births, deaths, careers, vacations. Yet they’ve never met.
Seventy years ago, Luann Smith of Decorah and Sue Leek of Avon Park, Fla. became pen pals through Wee Magazine, a children’s magazine.
Smith and Leek were third graders and Wee Magazine subscribers when their friendship was born. The periodical devoted to “character building for boys and girls” was divided into sections: stories, poems, activities and clubs, which included a pen pals column. The column included the names, ages and addresses of readers who wanted someone to write to. “Among the names printed here we hope you will find the pen pal you have been looking for,” the magazine’s introduction to the list of names said. Smith’s name, then Luann Gunhus, was among them and Leek, then Sue Roberts, picked her out.
“I wrote to her and she wrote back,” Leek said during a telephone interview. They started writing and didn’t quit, and their bond remains stronger than ever in their senior years.
Smith lived on a farm near Ridgeway, attended country school and was happy to have a pen pal in another part of the country.“I thought I could learn from her … I told her about my family, my pets and school,” Smith says during an interview at the kitchen table of her home on Decorah Avenue. For the Northeast Iowa farm girl, Florida was another world. Leek grew up in a small town in the Florida Panhandle. The two got a glimpse into each other’s lives through the photos they exchanged of their pets, dolls and homes.
Smith was fascinated. Florida seemed to have flowers all year round and Leek’s backyard needed a fence to keep the alligators out. “Writing letters with her broadened my horizons. I was fascinated by the farm and the big huge barns and all the snow,” Leek said.
The girls’ first letters were in print, but evolved to cursive as their letter writing improved. Sometimes a package would arrive. Leek sent Florida fruits, shells and white sand, something Smith had never seen before. As they entered their teen years, the pen pals began writing about boys and dating, and exchanged their high school yearbooks. “We wrote at least once a month. Oh gosh, yes, I was excited when I got a letter. We wrote about our hobbies and what was going on in our families. We wrote about school and I asked about what she wore for special occasions,” Smith said.
Smith and Leek, both 78, graduated from high school in 1953. Smith married her childhood sweetheart, Norm Smith, in December that year and they lived in Kentucky, Arkansas and Texas where Norm was stationed with the Army, before returning to Decorah in 1955. After she graduated, Leek began attended Sullins College in Virginia, a two-year girls’ junior college, where she majored in art and finally saw snow, in person, for the first time.
“There were eight of us from Florida who got our picture in the newspaper, building snowmen, sledding down the mountain, it was great fun,” Leek recalled. After graduating from Sullins, Leek attended and Ray Vogue School of Design for interior design. She also reconnected with her high school friend, Ed Leek, whom she eventually married. He was a pilot for Ozark Airlines and the couple lived in Chicago for 14 years, then moved to Key Largo, where they resided for 32 years. Smith worked in the Luther College print shop for 23 years, and Norm owned and operated Usgaard and Smith, a lawn care and small engine repair business, with his partner, Bob Usgaard. Norm eventually bought out his partner. The couple had two daughters.
Despite the demands of adult life, the pen pals continued their correspondence.
“We didn’t write as much after we were both married. She was raising her children and I was working as an interior designer, but we kept in touch,” Leek recalled.
When Leek was still living in Chicago, the Leeks planned to meet the Smiths in Galena, Ill. during the 1960s.“We had it planned for a long time and we were just getting ready to make the trip when I had unexpected company,” Leek recalled. “If I had it to do over again, I would have said I had plans. They were relatives of my husband and I was young and thought I had to be there. It was foolish. I regret not meeting her and Norm.”
“When I was little, my Daddy invited her to come and visit, but she doesn’t like to travel that much and doesn’t like the hot weather,” Leek said with a laugh. Leek was also invited to Smith’s 60th birthday party, but couldn’t attend because she was having cataract surgery. The Leeks were avid travelers and Leek sent Smith postcards from everywhere she went. In the last decade, the pen pals began talking on the phone to share their news.
“Her voice sounds like a million dollars … it sounds warm,” Smith said.
While they haven’t been able to chat together in person over coffee or an extended lunch, when either experienced traumatic events, one of their first calls was to each other.
“When our parents died, we went through that together. It’s just like having somebody to lean on and knowing that they’re there, even though she’s far away. It’s an understanding because she’s gone through the same thing,” Smith said.
Later, they dealt with the loss of their husbands. Norm Smith died first, in 2007, from an inherited heart condition and Ed Leek later died of cancer.
“When Norm died, I called her. It was hard, but it was good, she was my friend and made me feel better. I hope I did for her also (when Leek’s husband died). Now it’s another thing we have in common,” Smith said. Smith called and wrote to her pen pal when Leek’s husband died. “She sent a necklace with a heart and a book about healing after a loss that was very helpful. She had been through all this before,” Leek said. “We’ve kept in touch through the good and the bad.” Smith and Leek often talk about the many changes they’ve lived through.
“I don’t think most people know what pen pals are. We live in such a high-tech age, people don’t write letters anymore,” Leek said.
Smith said her family knows “all about” Leek, whose picture is included in a family photo album.
“I’m not sure what my grandkids think. It’s an entirely different age, with computers and Facebook and texting. Nobody has a pen pal,” Smith said.
The women also lament about how quickly the time has gone.“We’ll be talking about something that just happened, but it’s actually 15 or 20 years ago and it seems like it was yesterday,” Leek said.
Leek feels fortunate to have a friendship that’s lasted so many years, “longer than a lot of people live.”