Catonsville woman has long-distance friendship for life

hnorris@tribpub.com
Forty years of friendship from across the pond

Almost 40 years ago, Catonsville resident Cindy Russell caught an advertisement at the end of the popular children's television show "Big Blue Marble" for a program that would put people in touch with a pen pal.

Russell, 10, decided to sign up.

At the same time, 3,600 miles away, Jane Hollobone, a resident of England, spotted a message on the back of a magazine advertising a chance to find a pen pal.

In early 1976, Hollobone and Russell were given each other's address and began exchanging letters.

Nearly 40 years later, the pair remain close friends.

Late last month, Hollobone visited Russell at her Catonsville home and attended Russell's parents' 50th wedding anniversary.

"We just loved having her," said Judy Halsey, Russell's mother.

After watching her own daughter grow up alongside her English pen pal, the family invited Hollobone to visit their home when the girls were both out of high school.

"Jane came over here and we just fell in love with her," Halsey said. "I call her my other daughter."

The friendship the pair has developed, Russell said, is the kind of easy bond that doesn't require much effort.

"It really is like extended family," Russell said.

At first, Russell said, she and Halsey would use the letters to talk about how school was going and the differences between life in Maryland and life in England.

While there was no language barrier, there were plenty of differences to be discussed, Russell said. From slang to the school systems, the two provided a window for each other into life in a different country.

They also wrote about the similarities. From a shared appreciation for popular Scottish pop band the Bay City Rollers to other parallels, part of the fun of having a pen pal was learning about differences between each other and finding the commonalities, Russell said.

"It was always exciting," Russell said. "It was a nice thing to get a letter."

Today they communicate mostly through text messaging, Facebook and email, but Russell said she still has Hollobone's very first letter to her, and Hollobone keeps all of Russell's letters in a box at her house in East Sussex, England.

"We kind of laugh at how long it's carried on," Russell said.

Now wives and mothers, both women work in schools. Russell teaches seventh grade in Anne Arundel County, and Hollobone works as a school aide and counselor at home in England.

Russell said she recently asked her seventh-graders how many of them knew what a pen pal was. Only about half, she said, raised their hand.

Although a lot has changed, the women's connection has not, she said.

Over the years, Hollobone has visited with Russell about seven times; Russell has traveled to England twice. Next summer, Russell said, she plans to make the trip to England with her children, an experience that she said she's sure her kids will love.

Even if she doesn't make it this year, Russell said she's sure the friendship will continue on as strong as ever.

Sometimes, Russell said, they go several months without talking to each other, even as long as a year.

But each time they get together, it's like they were never apart, she said .

"We just pick up wherever we left off," she said. "She doesn't change, and I didn't change."

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