Pen pals forever It started by chance - with a stamp and some paper - 3,000 miles apart

Stephen Doherty and Susan Challenger, transatlantic penpals since 23 April 1987. 2208Ap15
Stephen Doherty and Susan Challenger, transatlantic penpals since 23 April 1987. 2208Ap15

When best friends Susan Challenger and Stephen Doherty started writing to each other 27 years ago, there was no facebook, no instagram and no emails.

The pair, separated by thousands of miles had only the power of pen and paper to keep their friendship going.

And when Susan, from the USA, ran up a $280 phone bill when she rang Stephen and his family every weekend for a month, phone calls were kept to a strict minimum and letters came vital.

Hundreds of letters have passed between the two during the past three decades.

And every letter, postcard, greetings card and newspaper clipping has been carefully preserved by them both.

This week Susan returned to the city where she was named an ‘Honorary Doherty’ by Stephen’s family and said she hoped other young people would follow their lead and get themselves an overseas pen pal.

“I remember being in tenth grade and my Spanish teacher asked if any of us wanted a pen pal,” said Susan.

“It cost two dollars. I was a huge U2 fan so I said that I wanted an Irish pen pal, French pen pal and an Australian one.

“But none of the pen pals ever wrote to me.

“My friend Matt Kuipes got a letter from a girl Oonagh in Derry, except he called her ‘Oonog.’

“As he was posting his letter I grabbed a piece of paper, scribbled my address down with a note which read: ‘Dear Oonaugh! My name is Susan and I sit next to Matt in Spanish Class. None of my pen pals wrote to me. I love U2! If you know of anyone who would like to write me. Give them my address. Thanks ~ Susan.’

“Well, about three weeks later I got a reply: ‘Dear Susan! I bet you are wondering who I am. My name is Stephen. I am Oonaugh’s brother, you know Matt’s pen pal ...’

“And that was how it started. I wrote him a letter back and he wrote to me. We were 16.”

Stephen explained that although he had other pen pals at the time, Susan was the only one he continued to write to.

“I remember that he had onion skin paper and we only had the airmail paper or the big envelope that would open out into a page to write on,” said Susan.

“But there was so much to write about. It wasn’t uncommon for us to exchange 32 page letters so we would make the package as light as possible as it was expensive to post by airmail.

“I had just got my driver’s licence and Stephen told me he thought it was neat that I drove.

“To this day Stephen, has never got his licence.”

But being a teenager in 1980s Derry was very different to being a teenager in the USA,” as Stephen explains:

“The troubles in Derry were the norm,” he said.

“But we didn’t know any different. “To correspond with someone like Susan who was so interested in Ireland and Derry was great.”

In 1989, Susan worked the Summer and decided to come and visit the city she had heard so much about.

“The first time I met Stephen was when I got off the plane here,” she explained.

“But I remember my parents weren’t too happy I was coming over.

“The news at home was portraying that you guys were dropping bombs every minute, but that just wasn’t true.”

Susan was a talented DJ and it wasn’t long before she got to work with the Q102 radio station.

“I remember they got me to do an advert for Best Sellers and the Inn at the Cross,” she said.

“Q102 offered me a job here and I regret to this day not taking that job.

“But they needed me to start in two weeks, and I just couldn’t do it. I should have said yes but I chose family and went home, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Susan says that although she decided to return to her home in Maryland and to this day still lives in her native country, her heart is in Derry.

Stephen on the other hand moved to London, where he still lives and the two make a point of meeting up and visiting each other’s countries every four years.

“I’m always amazed at how much Derry has changed every time I come back,” said Susan.

“When Stephen wrote to me, his letters were political, not that he was saying what was right or wrong but he was explaining the situation.

“He would send newspaper articles to me about Northern Ireland and I actually wrote a term paper on Northern Ireland based on the newspaper articles.

“And I got an A.

“Writing to Stephen gave me an opportunity to learn, he would ask me questions and I would explain that not all Americans had four televisions and a mansion like they did on television in the show Dallas.

“It was just so neat to exchange letters, and walk past the mailbox every day and check if a letter was there.”

The pair now communicate via email and facebook and say they cannot believe at how instant the communication is.

But their precious letters and cards are stored forever in a big suitcase in Stephen’s mum’s house and in a big closet in Susan’s home in Maryland.

“We have lots of memories to look at,” said Stephen.

Susan even has plans to write a book putting all the letters together.

“I have a title and everything,” she said.

“Before I left to come over here I took the letters out to photograph them and my husband was amazed that I had kept so many.

“I wish every child had the opportunity to pick a country, find someone their own age, write back and forth, and then take the time to go to their home, and then have them visit theirs.

“Just to get away from the misconceptions in the media and learn the truth.

“That’s what I did and I found out that this place is the most beautiful place in the world, bar none.

“In America we don’t have your kind of history.

“My next door neighbour in America even married a Derry guy.”

“I’ve told my husband that if we win the lottery, we are buying a house in Derry and coming over here.”

Stephen said he considers Susan more like a member of his family.

“With us, it was just so random our friendship starting,” he said.

“Nowadays you could get a pen pal in America who is a relation of someone you know by seeing them on facebook.

“But it wasn’t like that for us.

“All of my family love Susan.”

“They made me an honorary Doherty, “ Susan said. And Stephen’s dad before he passed away, told me this would always be my home. “Stephen’s Dad was a great man.”

During her visit back to Derry, Susan said she’d be most looking forward to having chips, peas and gravy and going back to Chapel 
Road, where Stephen used to live.

“I’m pretty sure my feet are inbedded in the dance hall The Venue,” she said.

“One night we were at The Venue and when Susan came back Mum and Dad asked if she’d had good craic,” said Stephen.

“Of course Susan didn’t know what they meant and told them she didn’t do drugs!”

Susan continued: “The reason we wanted to talk about our friendship was to explain to people how pen pals bring different types of people together.”

“Stephen and I have been friends for 27 years with just a pen, paper and stamps!

“Matt only wrote one letter to Oonaugh, the one that contained my letter.

“Over the last 27 years Stephen and I have remained best friends.

“This visit to Derry marks the 25th Anniversary of the first time I came to Derry and met Stephen and his family.

“For me, it was a “chance by stamp ... 3,000 miles apart!”

Things like that just 
don’t happen that way anymore”