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updated: 3/20/2013 2:56 PM

Prospect Hts. woman's Dutch friend a pen pal for 75 years

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  • Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights holds letters showing she has been corresponding with a pen pal in Holland since 1938.

       Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights holds letters showing she has been corresponding with a pen pal in Holland since 1938.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights has been corresponding with a pen pal in Holland since 1938.

       Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights has been corresponding with a pen pal in Holland since 1938.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights has this photo of her pen pal Bep Timmermans with her husband Bas and son Johan.

       Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights has this photo of her pen pal Bep Timmermans with her husband Bas and son Johan.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • This is Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights in her college years. She has been corresponding with a pen pal in Holland since 1938.

       This is Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights in her college years. She has been corresponding with a pen pal in Holland since 1938.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • This is a postcard Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights received from pen pal Bep Timmermans.

       This is a postcard Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights received from pen pal Bep Timmermans.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights has been corresponding with a pen pal in Holland since 1938.

       Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights has been corresponding with a pen pal in Holland since 1938.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights has been corresponding with a pen pal in Holland since 1938.

       Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights has been corresponding with a pen pal in Holland since 1938.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • In 1997, the last time they would see each other in person, the two friends sit outside Bep Timmermans' Amsterdam home.

      In 1997, the last time they would see each other in person, the two friends sit outside Bep Timmermans' Amsterdam home.
    Courtesy of Paula Brice

 

Marge Johnson of Prospect Heights remembers as if it were yesterday -- the advertisement in a Girl Scout magazine seeking pen pals.

When she looked down the list of names, she picked Bep Snoek, who was 15 years old and lived in Amsterdam.

Her impulsive choice to write to Snoek -- and Snoek's eager response -- began a lifelong friendship that next month will have lasted 75 years.

"It's just been so interesting learning about her life -- and another culture," says Johnson, who spent more than 20 years working in the library at MacArthur Junior High School in Prospect Heights.

Johnson's family members are planning to celebrate the occasion -- calling it a Pen Pal Party -- by bringing the two friends together, via Skype. Both women are no longer up to traveling: Johnson is 88 and her Dutch friend is 90, but they cherish the friendship as much as ever.

They began their correspondence as young teens. Johnson was 13 and living in Aberdeen, Idaho, a small town of 2,000 people. It was 1938, and she dreamed of what it was like to live in a far-off country.

Meantime, Snoek lived in Amsterdam, where her father was a banker and the country was recovering from a deep recession and dealing with growing tensions with Germany.

"In the beginning, I remember telling her about my pet rabbit," Johnson says, "and about my family and school."

Their letters quickly became more serious, when Holland was invaded by Germany just two years later and was forced into entering World War II.

"We were always afraid our letters were being censored," Johnson says. "Mostly she wrote about how short of food they were."

Her friend's plight prompted Johnson to put together care packages which she sent overseas, filled with such basics as sugar, flour and candy.

"One thing I didn't send was cheese," Johnson says with a laugh. "They didn't need cheese in Holland."

During the war years, Johnson attended Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., and studied sociology. She still dreamed of far off places, and after the war she volunteered to serve in the rebuilding of Europe under the direction of the Mennonite Central Committee.

She was stationed in Kiel, Germany, where she worked for two years in the relief effort to distribute food canned by Mennonites in the United States. Johnson eventually landed a spot in Amsterdam, where -- 10 years after their first letter -- she finally met her friend, Bep.

One of the first things she noticed was where her friend lived on a canal. Johnson fondly recalls the boat trips she and Snoek took along those canals.

"That's one of the reasons our friendship lasted," Johnson says of her 15 months in Amsterdam. "When I went over there and lived there, we really became close."

In the early 1950s, both women married and each would go on to have four children. From there, the letters became slightly less frequent, but they still shared the ups and downs of their lives, from having children to taking trips and celebrating other family milestones.

In 1985, Johnson drew her friend, now Bep Timmermans, to visit this country. She not only came, but she visited MacArthur and spoke to all of the social studies classes there.

Their last visit occurred in 1997, when Johnson and her daughter, Paula Brice of Elk Grove Village, traveled to Amsterdam during a European trip.

"I think young people today are missing the chance to develop a close friendship like this," Johnson says as she concedes the art of writing to a pen pal in a handwritten letter has given way to email, text messages and tweets.

Her son, Steve Johnson of Palatine, agrees.

"The depth of what they shared -- of having children, of losing their husbands -- some of the deepest parts of their lives, has been special," Johnson says. "It's the nature of their friendship that has driven its constancy."

Johnson has saved nearly all of the letters in an old cigar box. They include photos and news clippings as well as some that were hand decorated by Timmermans, with cross stitching and decoupage.

Her favorite is a cross-stitched tapestry that features different windmills in Holland. It hangs prominently in Johnson's home, reminding her of her dear friend and their relationship that has stood the test of time.

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