DeKALB – Sherrill Morris and Diane Handlen have known each other since the fifth grade, but despite their almost 43 years of friendship and a distance spanning about 1,120 miles, they’d never met in person until this year.
This summer, Morris, 55, traveled to Maine to meet Handlen, 56, of Biddeford, Maine. This past weekend, Handlen returned the favor, traveling to DeKalb to meet her friend in her hometown.
“It was just so exciting, just like I feel right now going there to visit her and her family, and you know, her life over there,” Handlen said of Morris as they met Friday for a tour of the historic Ellwood House in DeKalb. “It’s just so exciting, I’m thrilled. I was thrilled to pieces when she came down to visit me.”
When Handlen was in fifth grade in 1979 and 1980, her class participated in a project instructing the students to write letters to a pen pal through a service provided by the children’s TV show, “Big Blue Marble.” Handlen had other pen pals back then but she and Morris shared a strong connection, one which, it turns out, stood the test of time.
The pair sent birthday cards and letters yearly around holidays, and even sent gifts to each other.
“We just really connected, we shared a lot of things right from the get-go, and it was very easy,” Handlen said.
Growing up, the cost of long distance phone calls prohibited Handlen and Morris from speaking to each other often, the pair said. As they entered adulthood, the pen pals maintained letter-writing as their primary form of communication.
“And then, we each got married, we each had kids, we each got careers and then Facebook came around,” Morris said.
As Facebook and the age of social media evolved the long-distance communication game, Morris and Handlen’s friendship transitioned to instant messenger. They never used the video-call feature, but began to talk on the phone over the years.
“I remember having one phone conversation when one of her [Handlen’s] youngest was about two or three, so that would have been, gosh, twenty years ago,” Morris said.
They supported each other through a lot of different life events, Morris said, parenthood and otherwise, and were vulnerable with each other in a way that many might find themselves only comfortable to do with pen and paper.
“It was kind of like a diary that somebody else read in a non-judgmental way and supported you back,” Morris said. “Which was amazing through all of growing up, adolescence, young motherhood and marriage issues and financial problems, and all of those things that are common in everybody’s everyday life.”
As the duo entered 2022, they’d still never met.
The pair of unlikely friends had still never met at the beginning of 2022. While visiting a friend in Vermont over the summer, however, Morris decided to drive to Maine and meet Handlen for the first time.
They spent three “exciting” days together, Morris said.
“There’s the trepidation that maybe we wouldn’t like each other because when you are only corresponding through writing you kind of can create a vision of the other person that’s not true because you maybe input yourself too much,” Morris said. “However, Diane and I had a wonderful, wonderful time.”
Morris said she thinks the pair have a lot in common despite many differences in upbringing.
No matter the differences between them, Handlen said the link between them made the meeting feel normal.
“It’s almost like a sister bond, we were just there for each other. It didn’t feel abnormal or anything, it just felt natural,” Handlen said. “We graduated grade school and congratulated each other. We went through high school, she went into college, I went into the workforce. We were always constantly sharing so it was almost like a sister thing but from long distance.”
The distance between them was as short as ever this past weekend when Handlen visited Morris in DeKalb. Days before the trip, Handlen said she was “so stoked” and couldn’t wait to be out in northern Illinois with her lifelong friend.
The pair went to the Ellwood House Museum and toured the DeKalb area Friday before going into Chicago on Saturday. Handlen said she’s flown out of O’Hare International Airport but had never been into the city, so she was looking forward to spending time in Chicago.
Above all, however, Handlen said she was happy to spend time, in person, with her friend.
“Getting to see her in person and being able to talk face to face was awesome, was phenomenal,” Handlen said. “I mean, I just feel like the luckiest person.”