Rhinelander woman?s letters reach around the world
Turning 12 years old was an exciting time for Cindy Eckardt. That’s the year she got her first horse and acquired a hobby that she still pursues today.
In fact, it was her love of horses that made her sit down with pen and paper and start a correspondence with a fellow horse enthusiast, a pen pal, she picked from the classified ads in Western Horseman Magazine back in 1968.
“This magazine had a section for pen pals to write to each other,” she said. “I was really shy and introverted when I was a kid and so I thought writing to a pen pal would be a good way to communicate with someone else who loved horses.”
Cindy found the practice addicting and over the years she’s acquired quite a list of correspondents. Today she writes to 32 pen pals from all across the United States and even one in Australia. They range in age from 30 to 80 and many of the letters she pens are hand written, although she also uses email every once in a while or writes letters on a keyboard.
“I got an electric typewriter for a Christmas present when I was 16 years old and I still have it,” she said. “Today, though, I write many of my letters on the computer because it’s easier, but I still write by hand too just because I like that experience. It’s different when you write something out by hand than with a keyboard. And you just can’t beat getting a real letter in the mailbox.”
She even has a special pen pal box filled with supplies she uses when she writes.
“I never pass up stickers,” she said. “I like to seal my envelopes with them. They can really dress up a letter.”
She also purchases special pens, usually with different colored inks.
Cindy currently writes to friends in Pennsylvania, Washington, Montana, Arizona, Texas, Michigan, Oregon, Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, North Dakota, South Dakota, North Carolina, Virginia, Nevada, Ohio, New York and Illinois. She also writes to two inmates in different penal institutions. Most of her pen pals are women, but she also has a handful of men that share her hobby. If fact, she met her husband Barry via a singles pen pal club. They started corresponding in early 1986 and by October were married.
“I consider pen pal clubs the original Facebook or MySpace,” she said with a laugh.
Topics of the letters cover a wide range and many of Cindy’s pen pals have interesting careers. One lady milks a herd of goats; one is a wildlife biologist that counts birds who have been killed by windmills; one is a professional dog walker in Arizona; and some letter writers have just recently been laid off. Climate, family, divorce, marriages, children, careers, pets and lifestyle are frequent subjects. There are two topics though, that Cindy doesn’t touch—politics and religion.
“They can get too controversial,” she said. “I would rather know what a person does in their life than what their religious or political beliefs are. To me that’s much more interesting.”
Cindy herself found her pen pals a great deal of comfort when her own son Travis, joined the military right out of high school and then was deployed to Iraq, twice. One time his unit got ambushed and she and Barry did not hear from him for 45 days.
“I have a couple of pen pals who are mothers of military men,” she said. “They always knew just the right thing to write to me to make me feel better. That’s an experience only another person who has been through it can help you with. I was so thankful to have them as pen pals during that time. They were, and continue to be, a great comfort.”
Finding pen pals these days is a little different than when Cindy started 45 years ago. Of course social media has taken over personal letter writing in a big way, but people who share a love of writing letters still use techniques that prompt new friends to write. For instance friendship books are very popular. These are little tablets where a person writes their address on the first page and a little about themselves and then includes it in a letter. The person who receives the letter then sends it to another pen pal, who may write a letter to the originator of the friendship book.
“You meet a lot of pen pals this way,” Cindy said. “You used to be able to find pen pal sections in magazine and newspapers like I did when I started but today there are some crazy people out there, so many publications stopped this practice.”
Cindy grew up in Tomahawk, and has been an avid animal lover her entire life. Just recently retired, she served as an account technician in the Oneida County Forestry Department for 33 years. She and Barry live on a hobby farm which includes mini horses, chickens, donkeys and other critters. These pets keep her busy but her pen pal hobby is one she knows will make her retirement years even more enjoyable.
“I get pretty cranky when I go to my mailbox and don’t get a letter,” she said. “I know the way to get letters is to write them so I write to my pen pals as often as I can. It really is an interesting way to find out about how other people live.”