Pen pals still at it after 75 years
By ANDREW MCGINN
Typically, if you want to establish how long someone has been at something, you can date them using presidents.
For example, “Chuck Grassley has been an elected official since the Eisenhower administration.”
But in the case of Waunita Collogan, a lifelong Greene County resident, it may be more appropriate to date her long-standing, long-distance correspondence with a friend on the West Coast using postmasters general.
The postal service has gone through 22 postmasters general since the first time Collogan affixed a 3-cent stamp to an envelope bound for California — a place so far away to an Iowa farm girl in 1943 it may as well have been another country.
Kids being kids, though, no one could have, or would have, predicted that Collogan would be writing to the same pen pal 75 years later.
“She kept up her end of the writing,” Collogan, now 88, said. “That’s the sign of a good friend.”
In an era in which people communicate instantaneously, 140 characters at a time, the notion of sitting down and writing a letter by hand would seem to be the equivalent of chiseling on stone or even painting on a cave wall (never mind that the popularity of emojis means that texting is de-evolving us back to pictographs).
Since 2012, when the state adopted the Common Core, Iowa teachers haven’t even been required to teach cursive writing.
Last month, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay made news when it announced it would start sending acceptance letters via Instagram.
Yet there’s something to admire about a form of communication that’s not susceptible to bad Wi-Fi, fat thumbs or an electromagnetic pulse.
Plus, it occasionally gives the postal service something to deliver these days that doesn’t come in a box from Amazon.
When Collogan and her pen pal — Marilyn Grimm, of Yuba City, Calif. — began writing back and forth, they were mere eighth-grade girls, as Grimm recalls.
“Back when you’re a teenager, you had lots of things you thought were important,” Collogan said. “The first boyfriend and so on.”
Today, having turned 88 within five days of each other in September, they still find themselves pining for certain things.
“I keep hoping and wondering,” Grimm wrote earlier this year, “if I’ll ever have any great-grandchildren.”
Collogan — who was still Miss Waunita Dillivan for the first six years of their correspondence — was the first to marry, but also the first to be widowed.
Her husband Lowell, a lifetime resident of the Grand Junction area and a longtime farmer, died in 1997 at age 71.
Grimm, too, eventually lost her spouse.
But no matter what life threw at them, neither wanted to drop the ball — and so the letters continued, year after year, decade after decade, stamp hike after stamp hike.
“We were young girls at the time. It seemed like a big deal,” Collogan said. “Stamps were not 40 cents back then, either.”
(On a side note, Mrs. Collogan is in for a shock when she uses up the last of those “Forever” stamps. The postal service jacked the price of a stamp, again, to 50 cents back in January.)
A 1947 graduate of Grand Junction High School, Collogan now resides in Long Term Care at the Greene County Medical Center.
“Way back,” she begins to say, stopping herself.
“Everything is way back,” she said.
Way back, as Collogan tells it, Grimm placed an ad in a Sunday school paper seeking a pen pal.
Collogan answered, but she wasn’t initially Grimm’s only pen pal.
“I really enjoyed hearing from people from all over the country,” Grimm said during a recent phone interview.
At one point, Grimm had as many as 15 pen pals.
But Collogan and Grimm clicked in a way the others didn’t, and those other pen pals began dropping away.
“It seemed like we had a lot of the same interests,” Grimm explained. “She was from a small town. I was from a small town.”
“She seemed like an awfully nice person,” Grimm added. “We just kept writing back to each other.”
Both were farm girls.
Grimm was raised in Wheatland, Calif., a farming community about 40 miles north of Sacramento that was home to only about 500 people in 1940.
Today, the population of Wheatland has swelled to more than 3,450.
True to its name, though, Grimm’s father raised wheat and cattle on the family ranch about a mile out of town.
Collogan’s father rented farmland around Jefferson.
As Collogan moved from farm girl to farm wife, Grimm could only admire her work ethic.
“She works a lot harder than I did,” said Grimm, whose late husband was an insurance agent.
Grimm remembers stories of Collogan helping with harvest and building fences.
“I didn’t work that hard,” Grimm confessed. “I picked up walnuts, but that was about it.”
Still, those walnuts played a critical role in holiday baking around the Collogan home.
As her daughter, the Rev. Dori Collogan, recalled, walnuts would arrive from California every fall.
“Mom would wait to start her holiday baking after the nuts arrived,” said Dori Collogan, one of Waunita and Lowell’s four kids.
“At some point,” she added, “they agreed that the cost of postage was almost more than the value of the nuts, so Marilyn sent other sorts of gifts.”
These days, one will often be compelled to write the other by what they see on the nightly TV news.
“Lately, I’ve thought of you so often,” Grimm wrote in February, when she saw news about winter storms.
“I hope spring comes soon for you,” she added. “Enough is enough.”
For her part, Collogan wrote to Grimm this past summer inquiring about wildfires in California.
It goes without saying that with email and texting, she could have had her answer in seconds, but neither woman emails.
Grimm has an iPad, which she uses for more important things.
“I usually play Solitaire,” she said.
And so they remain content to correspond the old-fashioned way — and in its way, snail mail has never seemed so charming.
“Hope you can read my writing,” Grimm wrote, signing off her Aug. 13 letter. “It gets worse as I get older.”