CHURCH HILL — They were the best of friends for six decades, sharing their lives while half a world apart, until two weeks ago when Australian Anne Beazley and Karen Wilcox of Church Hill finally met for the first time.
The two have been pen pals since 1959 when they were 11 years old.
Karen, who currently resides in Church Hill, was born and raised in Long Island, New York.
On the other side of the planet, Anne was raised in Leeton, Australia, a rural farming community about 340 miles southwest of Sydney which was inhabited by only a few thousand people.
Their lives came together 60 years ago thanks to a school pen pal program that was introduced to them by their teachers.
Karen: “My teacher said, tomorrow bring in 50 cents and I’ll get you three pen pals. I brought my 50 cents in, and I got one in France who only spoke French, so that fell by the wayside. I got one in England. We wrote for a while, and that fell by the wayside. But I also got Anne. She was in Australia, and we’ve been writing for the past 60 years.”
In the beginning, they wrote about once every month to six weeks because it took so long for the mail to arrive.
What kind of things did you write about?
Karen: “The initial thing was, ‘Hi, I'm Karen Hammer — at the time — and I live in such-in-such, and this is what I like to do.’ You talked about yourself, your parents, where you lived. Then as it progressed, we grew up together, so we went through middle school, high school, and then I went to college, and we were able to talk about all these things. And then I got married.”
Anne: “I was married young. I had four children. I had my first child at 21 and the last one at 28, and it was very different where I lived, so we’d talk about the little town I lived in. … They were very different environments we lived in, and in school it was interesting because as we went though school and college they were called different things in Australia.”
Karen: “It was fun also because as we got into high school — and she doesn’t really remember this — but she had a friend and she had him write to me, and he wrote in the slang. So he would put, like, ‘The blokes went down ...’ and I had such a blast because if I just read straight through I had no idea what the guy was talking about.”
Lost letters and saved mementos
Anne had saved many of the letters and photos that Karen sent over the years, but they were lost in a flood. Karen lost her letters as well.
But they both saved a memento of each other from their youth.
Anne still has a charm bracelet with landmarks from New York, as well as a heart necklace with the serenity prayer on back that Karen sent around 1964.
Karen still has a plastic boomerang Anne sent her that contains all the Australian coins that were introduced when the country’s currency changed from pounds to dollars in 1966.
Karen also sent Anne a Twister game that’s Anne’s children were still playing with in the 1970s — although Anne didn’t find out about that until years later.
They stayed in touch for 30 years, but they lost each other around 1989. Anne experienced a flood and lost all of Karen’s letters, as well the address in Florida where Karen and her husband Don — both retired teachers — lived for 47 years.
Meanwhile, Anne had moved around quite a bit at that time in her life, and reverted to her maiden name, so Karen didn’t know her current address or name.
It was also a busy time in both of their lives, with Karen having a newborn child and Anne taking care of her mother during sickness.
But they never forgot each other, and thanks to the Internet they found each other again three years ago.
Reunited thanks to Anne’s detective work
By chance, Anne found a piece of paper that had the name of Karen’s hometown in Florida on it. With that clue, she was able to find Karen’s father’s obituary, and the names of Karen’s children.
But she wasn’t able to find Karen on Facebook because Karen uses “Karen Hammer Wilcox” instead of Karen Wilcox, which was what Anne was searching.
On a hunch, one day she looked up Karen’s daughter’s name on Facebook, found a woman who resembled Karen, and looked at some of her photos.
To her surprise, Anne found a message Karen had written under one of those photos.
Anne: “I clicked on her page and I just put in a message, ‘Karen, this is Anne Beazley but you may remember me as Anne Lockley. I think you are my long lost pen friend.’ ”
What did you think when you saw that?
Karen: “Unbelievable … after all those years.”
Anne: “Immediately she sent a message back. ‘Oh my goodness. It’s me. It’s me,’ and that started it.”
That was three years ago, and they’ve been communicating on a daily basis since then through email and Facebook messenger.
Karen: “It was just like, pick up where we left off. That was the best part.”
How Anne got to America
Anne spent 27 years living in Wagga Wagga working as a psychologist until she retired six years ago and moved to the east coast about halfway between Sydney and Newcastle.
Last year for her 70th birthday her family surprised her with a travel gift certificate, which they said was specifically for her to travel to the United States and visit Karen.
She arrived in Los Angeles last month and spent a five-day layover in Las Vegas seeing shows and taking a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon.
Anne arrived at Asheville Airport on Aug. 30, where she was greeted by Don and Karen, who was holding a “Welcome Annie” sign.
Anne: “The plane was an hour late, after waiting all these years.”
Anne presented Karen with a stuffed koala bear holding a baby koala, as well as an Australian flag that she brought from home.
Anne’s Tennessee adventure
Anne: “These beautiful people have been taking me — every day we go somewhere.”
Among the places they’ve visited were Natural Tunnel, but they went during the week when the chairlift wasn’t working, so they want to go back. They’ve also toured Asheville and Hendersonville, N.C., they attended a play and a storytelling session in Jonesborough, they visited some of Karen’s retired teacher friends in Johnson City and had lunch, they visited Bristol where Anne straddled the state line, and they watched the movie “Big Stone Gap” and then visited the town. On Thursday night they were listening to live music in downtown Kingsport.
Still in the itinerary before Anne leaves Sept. 22: a visit to Pigeon Forge, Dollywood, and Gatlinburg; a trip over to Smoky Mountain National Park to visit Cherokee, N.C., and to tour the Blue Ridge Parkway back to Asheville; a stop at the Secret City in Oak Ridge, and maybe a visit to Cumberland Gap.
Anne: “It’s like we’re the same. I love theater. I love community theater, and I love nature, and I love history, and I’ve just been overwhelmed with all of the above.”
Children need pen pals
Karen: “We just highly recommend that people find pen pals, whether they can find it through a company like our teachers did, or perhaps somebody that they know. I really encourage the little kids, and teachers — find another class or another school. Have the students write back and forth. You learn so much. You learn how to write letters. It’s just a marvelous experience, and maybe they’ll be fortunate to go 60 years like we have.”