By Amy Geiszler-Jones
Don Bates has a new pen pal. And no, he won’t be marrying this one.
Bates and Newman University junior Kayla Garvert have been emailing each other since the school launched a letter-writing campaign to brighten the day of two senior living communities in April.
Bates, 81, knows the power of the written word. Back in 1993, he started corresponding with an English language teacher in Lithuania through a group that put together letter writers from the U.S. with residents of former Soviet Union countries. He ended up marrying her in May 1994. The love story of Don and Ona Bates was featured in The Active Age in November 2018.
For both Garvert and Bates, their intergenerational correspondence — done via email — has been a welcome activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was so excited and grateful,” said Garvert about getting her first reply from Bates. “I love having pen pals.”
Several years ago, she used to correspond with the daughter of her mom’s college roommate who lived in Taiwan, she said.
“It’s exciting to have another pen pal, especially ones as interesting as Don and Ona,” she said. “It’s such a breath of fresh air to have something to do that doesn’t deal with COVID-19 mitigation plans or mask debates.”
She also understands how isolating life has become for seniors living in retirement communities. Her grandfather is in a nursing home under quarantine orders near her hometown of Plainville.
“He’s told my dad how he’s so lonely,” she said.
Don Bates tends to create PowerPoint presentations as part of his emails since it’s easier for him to use visual images in his correspondence because of his macular degeneration, he said. In what he calls a four-part “soap opera,” he shared the story of how he and Ona met, what her life had been like living under Soviet rule and how he ended up marrying her.
“She liked our soap opera,” Bates said. Garvert confirmed those emails were “among the most interesting things” Bates has written about.
Before Ascension Via Christi Village at Georgetown — where the Bateses live — went on what Bates calls “lockdown” in March, the couple had enjoyed participating in several activities of the community’s life enrichment program. Now, they can’t even have meals with other residents, he said.
Around April, Newman University’s Office of Student Life invited students, faculty and staff to write letters to residents of Georgetown and Park West Plaza Retirement Community. Garvert, who works in the office, helped put together the project, creating a logo for Operation Communication and writing a standard introduction and sample letter that participants could use. About 50 people from the university participated, said Christine Schneikart-Luebbe, Newman’s dean of students who came up with the Operation Communication idea.
“I initially thought there might be one response, but I never anticipated someone would develop a long-term stream of correspondence,” said Schneikart-Luebbe. Her effort to “say hello to someone you don’t know … was meant to brighten the day” for the senior residents, she said. Neither Schneikart-Luebbe nor Garvert knows if anyone else who wrote letters got a response.
It’s not too surprising that Bates wrote back, given that he has a history of corresponding and forming friendships through various means — from his letters to Ona to Skype video chats with a history teacher in Romania and with a retired university professor in St. Petersburg, Russia. He met the latter two when he posted a message on Skype that he’d like to visit with people from Eastern Europe or Russia.
“I’d been to those places, so we have something in common,” he said.
His friendships with people in different countries are born of his interest in history, traveling and learning more about the world. During his Air Force career, he served at several bases overseas. After retiring from the Air Force, Bates worked for the former KG&E company and IFR Systems, and he still traveled.
One of his emails to Garvert included a PowerPoint presentation about Lithuania.
Garvert and Bates have shared more than 30 emails over the past few months, with Bates being the more prolific sender. Garvert said she can count on an email from Bates at least once a week. Eventually, they plan to meet, both said.
“When this (quarantine) lifts, we’ll have her over for dinner and visit for real,” Bates said.
Amy Geiszler-Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.