Elderly pen pals continue 8 decades of tradition through heartfelt letters

Updated: May. 10, 2017 at 5:19 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - In today's digital world, we text, type and click send; handwritten notes are a dying art, and postage stamps have lost their place in many American homes.

But while emails suffice for many, Bertha Robinette continues to grab a pen and paper when she writes to her pen pal across the sea 80 years after her their first correspondence.

"I was in the 10th grade studying French, and our teacher selected ten of us that were interested in writing a student over there," Robinette said.

The 95-year-old said it all began her sophomore year of high school. Bertha would write to pen pal Jeanne in French. Jeanne wrote back from Belgium in English. The two then corrected each other's mistakes.

"We felt like we were teaching each other," Robinette said.

Shortly into their friendship, World War II began, and the young girls' letters became about a whole lot more than learning a foreign language.

"When the war came, Belgium was involved in war and so much of it was censored," Robinette said.  
Bertha remembers letters coming back, transferred through the American Red Cross, with big black lines crossing out some of Jeanne's words.

For a time, she was living in the dark not knowing whether her friend and her family had survived. But eventually, the good news arrived as it always did by mail.

"You had a love for that person that's just hard to explain," Robinette said.

After the war, the correspondence continued. The women continued to send letters across the sea updating each other on their lives. They saw each other through marriages and the births of their children.

When Jeanne and her husband Robert's children asked them what they wanted for their 50th wedding anniversary, the Belgian couple asked for a trip across the sea. Finally, Jeanne and Bertha met face to face.

"It was just a wonderful feeling to get to know her and to get to meet her," Robinette said.

The two couples spent a month in South Carolina together. Then a few years later, the Robinettes returned the favor, making their way to Belgium for a month.

"It's given to us a happy part of our lives to have this experience," Robinette said.

Both women are now 95, living in a retirement home in Columbia and a nursing home in Belgium.

Their letters are less frequent, but they still continue. Jeanne and Robert's picture is framed next to family members of the Robinettes, and one of their daughters even shares part of Jeanne's name.

When asked if she ever considered moving their conversation to email, Betha just laughed, proving the power of a handwritten note is still alive and well.

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