Faithful to the Letter

“You could say that she’s been there for me, even though she’s been thousands of miles away.”

Corresponding for more than 50 years, Wabash College nurse Sheila Evans and her British pen pal have exchanged encouraging words through good times, hard times, and surprisingly similar lives.

In an era of e-mail and AOL Instant Messenger, some might think of handwritten letters sent only few times a year as anachronistic. But for Wabash College nurse Sheila Evans, these letters initiated one of her most enriching and enduring friendships.

It began with a postcard. Addressed from Southampton, England, it was sent as part of an international exchange game sponsored by the Girl Scouts and Girl Guides.

“I would like an American Pen Friend,” the card read. “My name is Trixie Gillingham.”

Since 11-year-old Sheila was interested in the British Isles, she wrote back. She found out that Trixie was also 11, was also Anglican (Sheila’s father was an Episcopal priest), and had the same birthday as her sister. The coincidences were a sign of things to come.

The two began writing in 1952, and early letters cover mostly school and family activities, but Evans still recalls her friend’s description of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952. Gillingham and her family spent the night before the coronation sleeping on the sidewalk, and the young girl wrote vividly of the parade and the queen’s appearance.

“Trixie writes beautifully, and you could see that forming even then,” Evans says.

The letters continued, usually monthly, but the2 friendship blossomed when Sheila and Trixie finally met in 1961. At 22, Evans completed nursing school and decided to travel with a friend to Southampton aboard the Queen Mary. Her pen-pal met her at the docks.

“Trixie and her sister came aboard the ship,” Evans recalls. “She had a party for my friend and me. All her friends dressed in red, white, and blue, we played all kinds of mixers, we sang, and one guy’s mother even made him a red, white, and blue bowtie. I told her family, ‘We don’t ever have parties like this where I’m from.’ Her mother told me, “This isn’t a typical English party—this is a Trixie party!

“And over the years, whenever we’ve visited, she’s had a party for us. The age group and the activities have changed, but they’re always Trixie’s kind of parties. And my first one was unforgettable.”

“I think our relationship really became much more personal then,” Evans says. Letters became a way to keep it more personal during 20 years that passed until their next meeting.

“Our lives took off on parallel lines, and we kept writing,” Evans says. Trixie moved away from her home to do missionary work in Staffordshire, married a local man, and stayed there. Sheila moved to Indiana, married a local man, and stayed here. Both had families—two daughters and a son. Both named their oldest daughters, born only a month apart, Elizabeth.

In 1982, Sheila returned to England with her Scottish-born mother—whose own tradition of letter-writing had established a 70-year friendship with a family in Scotland—and Trixie welcomed her friend with an invitation to join her barbershop quartet for two concerts to be given that week. “We got on stage without even rehearsing,” Evans recalls. The friends performed together for two concerts.

In 1986, Sheila could tell from Trixie’s letters that her marriage was in trouble. Later, Trixie wrote to tell her friend of her divorce. A later letter included a Church of England pamphlet on the subject and a note that read: “This has been very helpful to me. Perhaps it may be helpful to you or someone you know.”

Three years later, Sheila broke with tradition and phoned her friend.

“We only call for ‘big’ things,” Sheila says, and her own divorce certainly fit the bill. Trixie listened for a while and then said, “Something wonderful will happen to you.”

She also told her friend about a widower she’d met named Ernest; how they had so much in common, and how much they loved each other.

“It became an ongoing joke between us the next few years,” Evans says, “that someday, I’d find my Ernest.

The joke became more reality than she could have imagined. Her friend’s new husband had been a widower whose wife Trixie had sung with in church. In 1999, Sheila began dating her own future husband, Bob Evans—a widower whose wife had sung with Sheila in a community choir. At 2 a.m., Sheila called her pen-pal with the news. As things turned out, Trixie and Ernest couldn’t attend Bob and Sheila’s wedding later that year. But Trixie phoned, Sheila says. “That made the day complete.”

The couples met in England in 2002 for a co-celebration—of two new and happy marriages, and Sheila and Trixie’s 51-year friendship.

“Immediately, there was this great rapport,” Evans says. “The four of us have such a good time together.”

Sheila attributes the longevity of their friendship to common interests, loyalty, and letters, but mostly to her friend.

“You could say that she’s been there for me, even though she’s been miles away,” Evans says. “She’s been a great writer—a dependable person who just doesn’t give up on people very easily.”

You might think e-mail would be a boon to these long-time corresponders, but Evans says the new technology doesn’t play much of a role in her correspondence with her friend of 50 years.

“We use it for quick messages—the last time we visited we used it to let them know when we’d be arriving,” Evans says. “But we still don’t do much e-mail or phoning. We call each other on birthdays, but we’ve kept the same letter-writing routine through the years. You tend to think it out more when you write a letter, and I think we did tend to open up more and expand on things in a way you wouldn’t either by email or in a phone conversation.

Even after 50 years, Evans says: “We still do our real talking in letters.”