Pen pals for 43 years and counting

Carrie Johnson of London, Ohio, was 12 when she first began a pen pal letter exchange with Hakan Pettersson, of Linkoping, Sweden.

(Posted Sept. 19, 2019)

By Theresa Hennis, Staff Writer

Friendship today is only an instant message, text or chat away, but what lasting friendship requires is something we’re not so good at anymore—waiting. Carrie Johnson-Sollars of London waited 25 years to meet her best friend for the first time in person and another 18 years to visit him in his homeland.

When Sollars was 12 years old and in seventh grade, one of her teachers passed out newspaper clippings with the invitation to sign up for a pen pal. Sollars signed up. She was given the name Hakan Pettersson, a 14-year-old boy from Linkoping, Sweden.

Hakan Pettersson of Linkoping, Sweden, was 14 when he first began a pen pal letter exchange with Carrie Johnson of London, Ohio.

“For years and years, we wrote back and forth, waiting for letters from each other,” Sollars said. “Sometimes we had to wait for four weeks at a time, but we always quickly responded to each other to receive another letter.”

What started out as an exchange of letters has kept Sollars and Pettersson connected for 43 years. Before emailing and Facebook became the way to stay in touch, the two continued to faithfully write to each other to share the details of their lives.

“We’d gotten married and had children, and we sent pictures back and forth, getting to know each other’s families,” Sollars said. “Hakan and I lost our dads within a year of each other, and we were able to comfort each other through letters.”

The kind of bond the two made through writing is what Sollars wishes today’s youth could experience.

“I don’t think, of course, that pen pal writing is the same as Facebook,” she said. “You slowly get to know each other through letters, whereas on Facebook, it’s instantaneous. Writing puts magic to the waiting, and the anticipation of getting a letter is much more special.”

Carrie Johnson-Sollars (left) meets her longtime pen pal, Hakan Pettersson of Sweden, for the first time. It was 2001, and Hakan made the trip to the United States; they had been exchanging letters for 25 years at that point.

Pettersson visited the United States in 2001 and stayed with Sollars and her family for eight days. The highlight of his trip was visiting Cedar Point and the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

“They don’t have major amusement parks in Sweden,” Sollars said. “Hakan loved ‘riding’ the Cedar Point virtual roller coaster online, and when he got here he got to do the real deal. He was like a kid in a candy shop.”

He visited again in 2017 to attend Sollars’ daughter’s wedding.

When Sollars and her husband, Kip, visited Pettersson in Sweden this past July, Pettersson, his girlfriend, Helen, and his daughter, Jenny, who works in the hospitality industry, planned the complete trip itinerary as a surprise. They visited Linkoping, Vastervick, Gotland Island, Hasselo Island, and Stockholm. They also stayed in Vastervick for three days in Helen’s mom’s summer cottage on the waters of the Baltic Sea.

(From left) Hakan Pettersson of Linkoping, Sweden, Pettersson’s mother, Ingegard, and Carrie Johnson-Sollars of London, Ohio, stand outside the Pettersson family home before they go inside to enjoy Fika, a Swedish coffee break.

Seeing Hakan’s homeland and the beautiful scenery was a dream come true for Sollars, but the highlight of the trip for her was meeting her pen pal’s mom, Ingegard.

“Going down the road from Hakan’s home to the home where he grew up, and seeing where he wrote the letters to me made me cry,” Sollars said. “His mom doesn’t speak English, but we communicated through hugs and tears.”

Pettersson translated what Sollars said.

“I told his mom what an opportunity it was to meet them and how honored I was,” Sollars said. “She treated us to the Swedish daily tradition of Fika when people slow down and get away from the world to enjoy pastries, coffee and time with each other.”

Pettersson’s mother had baked all night before the Sollarses arrived, making her signature pastries and cookies.

“They wanted us to experience the best of Sweden while we visited,” Sollars said. “We were in good hands. We were so overwhelmed by their hospitality, and saying goodbye was pretty tough. I’m one lucky gal to have met Hakan through a letter so long ago.”

Messenger photo by Theresa Hennis
Carrie Johnson-Sollars displays some of the letters and photos she and her pen pal, Hakan Pettersson, have exchanged over their 43-year friendship.
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