LaReeca Rucker has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and her work has appeared in newspapers across the nation. She spent a decade as a features writer and multimedia journalist with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was also a USA TODAY contributor. She is a freelance journalist and support journalism instructor in the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media in Oxford, Mississippi.

Pen Pals: Long distance friends spend time together in Mississippi

LaReeca Rucker
The Oxford Eagle

Marianna Ochs’ uncle was in the Navy during World War II when he received a pair of socks from a New Zealand woman. He gave the woman’s contact information to his sister, Tilly, and the two corresponded for years.

Twenty years later, in the 1960s, Tilly’s New Zealand pen pal told her she had a friend with a granddaughter who would like to write someone in the United States. Tilly suggested the girl write her niece, Marianna, and that is how Marianna Ochs of Oxford and Pauline Dick of New Zealand became pen pals.

Today, their method of communication has changed. They, technically, no longer write each other using pens; they are “email pals” instead. And this month, after almost 50 years of corresponding, Pauline and her husband, Keith Dick, traveled to Mississippi to meet Marianna in person for the first time.

“In the 1960s, having a pen pal was kind of the thing to do,” said Ochs, 62.

“There were international pen pal groups. I was an only child, so I was very excited to be getting letters from someone so far away. At the time, I didn’t know a lot about New Zealand.”

After decades of corresponding, the pen pals had their first face-to-face meeting this month in the garden courtyard of the Hotel Chateau in New Orleans.

Dick, 64, and her husband later traveled to Oxford to stay with the Ochs family.

“In 1964, I was about 12, and she was 14,” said Ochs.

“Pauline always wrote very detailed letters. I still have most of them. Our birthdays were a day apart. Hers is Jan. 31, and mine is Feb. 1. We both liked to sew. She sent me samples of fabric.

“She was married before I was, so it was a very big deal when she sent me her wedding pictures. I still have them. We probably talked about The Beatles and things like that in our letters.

"Being an only child, I always wanted a sister, so she was like a sister. Some of our letters, we wrote back: ‘Your sister, Marianne’ or ‘Your sister, Pauline.’”

The mail was sent between St. Louis and Tawa, New Zealand, a suburb of the capital city, Wellington.

Ochs lived in Missouri until she married at 23. Along with letters, Dick sent Ochs pictures of her husband’s scientific expedition to Antarctica, photo albums of her children with details written on the back of the pictures and a book about New Zealand with anecdotes in the margins.

The two wrote each other while Ochs moved from St. Louis to Texas, North Carolina and Mississippi with her husband, who worked in the commercial real estate business. And when both became teachers, they told their students about their pen pal in a foreign land.

“She taught older students in 11th and 12th grade, and I taught first grade,” said Ochs. “In our first-grade classes, we had something called Celebration of Nations, and I had this builtin person. I always chose New Zealand.

“My first-graders did research projects on New Zealand. They wrote questions and sent them to Pauline’s students. She would match her students with my students.

“She sent me beautiful books and things for my children – things I could share. Some students had never experienced anything outside their neighborhood, and not halfway across the world. That opened their eyes to people and differences.”

Dick, one of 10 children, grew up with her grandparents. Her grandmother was a dressmaker, and Aunt Tilly’s pen pal was her customer.

“We wrote about twice a year,” Dick said. “It was about the highlights of what was happening at school, exams, moving on to college, or getting a car. She was on the other side of the world, but she was doing very similar things that I was doing.

“Living in New Zealand is so far away from everyone else, and in the 1960s, I felt really special that I was writing to someone who lived in America.”

Dick said she decided to visit the United States before turning 65.

“The timing was excellent, because we’re also fulfilling another kind of promise on motorbikes,” she said. “We are being adventurous. My husband and son made a pact a few years ago that they were going to do it. I will be sitting on the back.”

The Dicks — who have lived in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Australia, where Keith Dick worked as a mathematician and engineer — have spent a couple of weeks touring Mississippi while staying with the Ochs.

Last week, they traveled to the Randolph community near Pontotoc to buy jellies and crafts at the Amish village.

This week, the Dicks will leave Oxford and fly from Memphis to Chicago to embark on a motorcycle journey from Illinois to California. They’ll meet their son, Mathew, and daughter-in-law, who will fly from China to the U.S., and they’ll ride on motorcycles to California. They plan to spend a few days relaxing and being tourists before traveling to San Francisco. Then, they’ll return to New Zealand.

“I think having a pen pal has opened my eyes to the fact that someone, who lives all the way around the world, might do little things differently, but we are similar,” Dick said. “Our lives have had very similar courses.”

Technology has also changed the way the two correspond. Today, you can Google the word “pen pal” and find a number of online sites, similar to, that will pair you with a pen pal in another part of the country or world. Stamps are no longer needed.

“We’ve talked on the phone maybe five times in our lives,” Ochs said. “It was very expensive to call. Now, we can send messages, and every few days, we write. Now, we can send pictures easily. My son was married last year, and so was her daughter, so we’ve been able to, almost instantly, share pictures and things.”

Ochs said receiving letters from her pen pal made life a little more exciting.

“It was very exciting to get these letters from this foreign country and find out all the things that were happening to her,” she said. “I sat down, read them, and told my parents about Pauline. Our lives, in hindsight, have been parallel to each other. My life was kind of sheltered, but I really have felt like Pauline was my sister."


The Journalism Portfolio of LaReeca Rucker