By Debbi Elmore
Don and Ona Bates met through the written word – the old-fashioned, pre-Internet written word. In 1993, Don responded to an article in The Wichita Eagle looking for people interested in corresponding with someone in the former Soviet Union. About the same time, Ona responded to one in the Moscow English language paper seeking people interested in meeting someone from America.
After a year as pen pals, Don knew he’d like to meet Ona in person. So Don, who was in the habit of numbering his letters, used No. 13 to invite her to visit America. Weeks went by with no response. It wasn’t until Ona opened letter No. 14 that she realized she had never received the previous one. Once the invitation was repeated, she eagerly accepted.
“She had never been on a commercial airline,” Don said, “so I booked her a direct flight from Warsaw to Chicago and planned to drive to Chicago to meet her. What I didn’t know was it was a 13-hour train trip from her home in Lithuania to get to Warsaw.”
Nevertheless, the trip went off as planned and they met for the first time in person in Chicago. After a lifetime of hardship and austerity under Russian rule, she was amazed at the many amenities readily at hand in America.
“I had never seen an ATM.”
On the other hand, when Don went to visit her in Lithuania, he was shocked. “It was like stepping back to the 1950s. She had been on a waiting list for a telephone for 18 years.”
An English language teacher, she was not allowed to attend church. “In the former Soviet Union, if a teacher went to church, they couldn’t teach,” Don said.
Students finishing high school were expected to spend two years working on a collective, but because of Ona’s small stature, she was unable to do any of the physical farm work. She worked in the accounting office instead.
When her two years were up, she went to the university. One plus of the Soviet system was that higher education was free for all. She graduated in five years and became a teacher.
“A lot of her former students stay in touch with her still,” Don said proudly.
Don retired as a major from the U.S. Air Force, having served in several stations overseas and completed his college education at the University of Hawaii. His last post was McConnell Air Force Base, where he was chief of maintenance of the communications squadron. Deciding to stay in Wichita, he worked for Westar for a year and then for IFR Systems for 16 years, retiring for good in 2002.
The couple married in May of 1994.
“For me, the hardest thing was learning to drive,” Ona said of life in the United States.
They still travel to Lithuania to visit her daughter, two granddaughters and great-grandson. His two daughters and five grandchildren live in Kansas City.
Don’s eyesight began to fail after 20 years of marriage. “My daughters wanted to take care of me, so they wanted us to move to Kansas City,” he said. “We decided we wanted to stay in Wichita.”
They moved into a first-floor apartment at Via Christi Village Georgetown, where both enjoy the Village’s life enrichment program. “It’s like one big family,” Don said. He pointed to framed landscapes hanging on the couple’s walls, noting they were all painted by his wife. Ona also crochets, makes dolls and decorates eggs.
One aspect of her adopted country that hasn’t tempted Ona are its casinos. Her eyes twinkle when she says she doesn’t gamble.
“I won once in my life and I got the best prize – this man.”
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