There was a time when having a pen pal was a good way to learn about people and places far away.
The process was simple. High school students would randomly select the name of another youngster from a different part of the country, or maybe even abroad.
They'd then write and introduce themselves, and hopefully, strike up a pen pal friendship.
The trend was especially fashionable in the 1950s. Back then, there were no personal computers and no such thing as emailing or texting. Social networking consisted of, perhaps, a dance at the Y. The only Facebook that existed was the high school annual, and tweeting was something done by Tweety Bird.
Yes, there were landline telephones in the early 1950s. But Ma Bell charged way too much to talk long distance. And so writing letters was a good way to communicate. The pen pal fad was a hit.
For a Tamaqua woman, the pen pal craze was the start of an enriching friendship that has lasted a lifetime.
"We were in shorthand class in 11th grade and they put a whole bunch of names on a desk," says Kathryn Davies, 75.
Davies, then a student at Tamaqua High, selected the name of a twelfth grade student in Commerce class in Marksville, La., and the two began to correspond. They quickly forged a friendship that overcame the 1,300 miles separating them. Surprisingly, the two young women couldn't have been more different, something still true today. They have distinctly opposite personalities and different likes.
Davies is a calm, quiet, laid back person geared toward bookkeeping, accounting and mathematics. Pen pal Iris Masling (then Edwards) is a high-energy, talkative Southern belle who's driven toward the arts.
From the start, it appeared as though they had nothing in common. But that didn't prevent the duo from establishing a bond that has thrived over the past six decades.
The pen pals have been there for each other through all of life's ups and downs, even though both followed a different path.
Masling married a music teacher and the couple had two sons, Timothy and Kim, and daughter Denise, all geared toward music, arts and crafts. Now at age 76, Masling is widowed.
Davies, on the other hand, never married. She attended Ford School of Business and began her career working at local employers, including Silver Furniture, Schilbe Lumber, Tamaqua Gas Co., and Tamaqua National Bank.
Eventually, she left Tamaqua and worked for 30 years in private industry in the Philadelphia and Lancaster areas before returning home and carving out an 18-year career with the Social Security Administration, Pottsville. Davies also cared for her elderly parents, Edward K. Davies, Jr., and Thelma Neidlinger Davies, until their passing just two years apart.
She now lives in the family homestead on Orwigsburg Street and keeps in close contact with her sister, Virginia Haraszkiewicz, of Williamstown, N. J., and, of course, her pen pal.
Davies reflects on the 60 year-friendship with Masling and agrees that it has been unusual in some ways. For instance, the two wrote to each other regularly long before they met face-to-face.
"It was thirty years before we met," acknowledges Davies. Finally, she and her sister drove to Louisiana to meet Masling. She has since been there twice. And Masling has been to Tamaqua. Masling visited in the late 1980s and says she enjoyed the trip to the Keystone State even though she and her husband Bill were recovering from influenza at the time.
"The trip was scheduled and we didn't want to cancel." she says. Seeing Pennsylvania's mountains was a treat, says Masling, and so was the itinerary.
"The countryside is so different. We went to the Betsy Ross House and the Philadelphia Museum, and learned country line dancing, which hadn't gotten down to Louisiana yet."
Both women demonstrate a great amount of respect for each other.
According to Davies, Masling has tremendous talent and is a warm, loving woman.
"She's very kind and generous," says Davies, who admires Masling's artistic skills. "She does china painting and she sews. She made a beautiful shawl for me and a pocketbook to match."
Masling says Davies is special.
"She's absolutely wonderful, the most generous person I could've met in my life," says Masling. "She is goodness personified."
Both women agree that learning about each other and their differences is what helped the two to bond.
"If we'd been the same, we wouldn't have had anything to say to each other," says Masling.
Davies says the two agreed to stop exchanging gifts because both already had accumulated too many goodies.
And now that long distance phone programs are more affordable, the two have become phone pals as much as pen pals. But never an email. Neither Masling nor Davies uses a computer.
Is finding a pen pal a good idea in today's world?
Davies would recommend the experience to today's youngsters, but understands present-day realities. The convenience of instant email messages makes the concept of pen pals a bit outdated. Plus, many of today's youngster wouldn't take the time to sit down and write a letter longhand.
"It's probably too much trouble for people today," says Davies.
And that's a shame, because good things can happen when two strangers slow down and take time to get to know each other. When that happens, something unique and wonderful takes place.
For Masling, it's been an affirmation of enduring goodness in the human spirit.
For Davies, it's been the blossom of a friendship as special as a colorful Iris.