Editor's note: This story was originally published Aug. 4, 2007.
WORTHINGTON -- Most pen pals never expect to meet -- especially childhood pen pals who correspond for a short period of time.
Such was the case with Martha "Marnie" Cashel McCarthy and Kerttu Seikkenen Karkkainen, who were young girls living in Minnesota and Finland, respectively, when they exchanged letters, in two languages, 60 years ago.
But their brief relationship all those years ago was the spark that brought about the connection between Worthington and Crailsheim, Germany. It blossomed from a relief effort in the wake of World War II into a sister-city partnership and exchange program.
Marnie eventually moved away from Worthington, but was highly aware of the Worthington-Crailsheim program and had visited the German community four times. Kerttu, on the other hand, never knew how her innocent request for a pair of shoes had consequences that would endure for 60 years.
As Crailsheim began to prepare for festivities to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Worthington-Crailsheim partnership, Dieter Kainzinger, chairman of the Worthington Committee in Crailsheim, pondered "wouldn't that be something to have these two pen pals come together for the 60th anniversary of being sister cities, because that's the very first persons we owe it to."
As a close friend of Marnie and her husband, Bill, Kainzinger had already extended an invitation to them for the July celebration. But how to find Kerttu? With only a 60-year-old address and picture of three little girls standing in front of a house in Finland, the task seemed impossible, but he decided to give it a try.
Through Internet research, Kainzinger found a central population register center in Finland; he sent a letter, enclosing a copy of the 1947 letter bearing Kerttu's former address and the picture.
"Within only three days, I received an e-mail from them, and they said that there is a person with this name in their files," Kainzinger related. "I was told that my request was being forwarded, and ... waited for that person to answer. Another two days later, I received another e-mail from the office, and I was given the new name and address of Kerttu."
Kainzinger sent letters to Kerttu in English, German and finally Finnish before receiving a reply.
"What I did not know until now, Kerttu could read a little English and German, but due to her husband's advice, she did not reply because it was 'midsummer night' where she lives -- it is dark all day and night and such important things are not handled in that time of year," he explained.
By Christmas last year, Kainzinger was able to give Marnie a special present -- the news that he'd located her childhood correspondent and there was a chance they could meet.
"Dieter called last Christmas and said, 'I have a surprise for you -- can you guess?' Of course I couldn't," recalled Marnie, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., but spends summers in the Alexandria area. "I could never have guessed that."
The two women once again exchanged letters using Kerttu's daughter, who lives in Toronto, as a translator, and then, in the middle of July, they finally met in Crailsheim.
"We became good friends almost immediately," shared Marnie. "She has a wonderful sense of humor. We laughed a lot even though we don't share a language.
"When I first met Kerttu, we were plunked into a press conference right after I got off the train. We had a translator, and someone asked her a question about how she would describe herself, and she said she was like a wild pony from the forest. She is a very free spirit, a great spirit."
Kerttu and her sister, Maija, and the McCarthys, along with a large delegation of people from Worthington, took part in a full schedule of events lasting more than a week in Crailsheim. A German delegation is expected to visit Worthington next summer for a similar celebration here.
It's difficult for Marnie to describe the overwhelming feelings associated with meeting Kerttu and knowing that they played a role in creating such a long-lasting bond between the two communities.
"Basically, I don't have any words. I feel like a teenager -- it's fabulous, it's awesome -- these words aren't sufficient. They're so trite. There aren't words. It was an amazing experience, and it's very hard to talk about it and feel like I'm doing a good job of communication.
Marnie credits her mother, Theodora Cashel, who died in 1992, with spearheading the effort that led to the Worthington-Crailsheim connection.
"She would have been as surprised as I was" about finding Kerttu and the 60th anniversary events, Marnie reflected. "It's hard in a way. I feel that I'm doing this in my mother's stead. If she were here, of course, she'd be doing all of this. It's something that I've inherited from her. It's exciting, but also humbling. How many people have been affected by this project, this wonderful idea?"
This poem was written by Worthington resident Fern Vanzwol and was read during the celebration in Crailsheim.
Shoes of Kindness
Martha wrote to her pen pal
Living far across the sea
"I'd like to send a gift to you
So tell me, please, what should it be?"
Her friend replied, "I must not beg
But, since you asked for me to choose,
Of all the things across the world
The best of all, a pair of shoes."
She wrote her shoes were made of paper
So a perfect gift real shoes would be.
Old or new, it did not matter
"But a perfect gift, real shoes for me."
So Martha and her brother and a friend just down the street
Took his little wagon, asking everyone they'd meet.
They asked for shoes and jackets to be sent so far away
All because a girl in Finland hoped for shoes to come her way.
Because of that one pair of shoes
We all can learn that we must share
Reach out to those who are in need
And let them know you really care.
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