After 47 years, Cloquet woman meets Australian pen pal

CLOQUET -- Knowing someone for 47 years but never being able to sit down with them face-to-face is a rare occurrence. However, for Abby Volkert of Cloquet and Carmel Dewick of Perth, Australia, that was the case -- until recently.

CLOQUET -- Knowing someone for 47 years but never being able to sit down with them face-to-face is a rare occurrence. However, for Abby Volkert of Cloquet and Carmel Dewick of Perth, Australia, that was the case -- until recently.
Volkert, a long-time employee at Potlatch, was offered something special by her significant other, Earl, as a retirement gift this year. Earl, also a long-time Potlatch employee and recent retiree after 26 years of service, said he would pay for a trip to Australia for Abby so she could finally meet her long-time pen pal Carmel.
One thing led to another, and because Volkert had so many family members here, she decided to offer Dewick the chance to come to the United States instead. She gladly accepted the offer, and after nearly a year of anticipation, she arrived at the Duluth International Airport in early August.
Their story began 47 years ago, when Volkert was 10 years old and an elementary student at the Jefferson School in Cloquet. She picked three other kids' names from a list and sent letters to them. Dewick was about 15 years old at the time.
In addition to Dewick, Volkert sent letters to someone in Puerto Rico and England. However, she continued to correspond only with Dewick. Back then, the two say they communicated about "kid's stuff."
Over the years, as they remained in contact, they found out they had a lot in common. Both married men named John. Both got divorced around the same time. And both gave birth to boys: Volkert had two boys, and Dewick also had a son.
The women not only contacted one another through the mail but occasionally spoke on the telephone. However, the difficulty in telephone connections years ago between the United States and Australia made that cumbersome. With the advent of e-mail, communication for the pair has become easier than ever before.
"One thing that amazed me is that the first time I called Carmel, I found out we had so many similarities, and I'm finding that out more so now that she's been visiting," Volkert said. "There's just so many ironic things. We're both interested in crafts, have both worked most of our lives. We just have a lot in common."
During her pen pal's visit to Cloquet, Volkert said the two women have acted like young girls. They have found themselves staying up late at night, telling stories and laughing together. She said it's been much like a sleep over.
"I couldn't have asked for a better pen pal," Volkert said. "It's been so much fun. We've been giddy."
This trip is Dewick's first time in the United States. She will return home Sept. 2.
The trip from Melbourne, Australia, to Duluth was a long one. Dewick said the trip took about 28 hours, with the longest stretch of flying being a 14-hour flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles. But since she's been here, she hasn't taken much time to rest, despite contracting a good old-fashioned Minnesota cold.
During her stay, Dewick has had an opportunity to see the North Shore, visiting Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse and other tourist attractions. She's also made a trip to the Twin Cities and seen some of the local attractions, such as the Carlton County Fair last weekend.
In addition, she's had a chance to tour the Potlatch mill and meet a great number of people, including Volkert's son, who spent two weeks visiting from Arizona.
Dewick made the trip to the United States with only one suitcase, but said she's going back with two, as she's accumulated some items for the trip home. She said she's enjoyed seeing some of the buildings in Cloquet, and learning what was located in them years ago, when she and Volkert first started exchanging letters.
There have been many similarities between the countries that Dewick has noticed during her stay here, but she says Americans seem to have so many more things that she's never heard of -- such as the number of different types of pizzas.
"Food-wise it's incredible here. You have 50 different types of pizzas, and we've got about four or five," Dewick said. "The amount of stuff you have that I've never heard of is tremendous."
She said the differences in how Americans refer to things and how Australians refer to things are sometimes interesting. For example, Dewick refers to a pullover sweatshirt as a "sloppy Joe," while here she had an opportunity to eat one.
"They all seem to be fun people; they've all been real friendly and want to meet you," Dewick said of the people she's met here. "Maybe because you come from a smaller country town they are more friendly here."
On the contrary, when asked if the Americans' perception of Australians that they get from watching movies such as "Crocodile Dundee" and those they get from listening to the tales of the "Crocodile Hunter" is an accurate portrayal, Dewick said that perception may be accurate for those people, but not Australians in general.
"He's daring," she said referring to the Crocodile Hunter. "Nobody should jump in with a bunch of crocs; even Crocodile Dundee doesn't do that," she said laughingly. She did say what we see on television about the Crocodile Hunter is accurate, and that he is well known in her country too. She said his popularity in the United States probably does a lot to promote her country here.
Some day, Volkert hopes to be able to visit Dewick's country too, but regardless, there is no doubt the two will remain in contact and continue their friendship. Now that they've had a chance to meet and spend time face-to-face, the bond between them has grown that much stronger.

Scott Elwood is publisher of the Cloquet Pine Knot, a Murphy McGinnis newspaper.

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