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Pen pal for 54 years travels to Finland to meet long-time friend

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POTSDAM — A pen-pal friendship that started as a classroom assignment in 1959 reached a turning point in June when Charlotte Layaw Kerns, formerly of Potsdam, finally met Marja Hammar of Finland face-to-face after 54 years of correspondence.

The relationship began when teacher Jan Barrows told her sixth-grade Lawrence Avenue Elementary School class they should write letters to children in other countries since the class was studying world geography.

One of her young pupils in that 1959 class, Charlotte Layaw, now 65 and living in Annapolis, Md., was instructed to write a letter to a pen pal in Finland. Meanwhile in Finland, Ms. Hammar, a young teenager at the time, had advertised in her local newspaper that she was interested in writing to someone in the United States in efforts to improve her English language abilities.

Ms. Kerns was born in Potsdam and went to school there through seventh grade in 1961, before eventually moving to Maryland in 1969. However, during that school day in 1959 she unknowingly began a friendship that has lasted for more than half a century with a simple letter of introduction to Ms. Hammar.

“I tried to keep (language) simple,” Ms. Kerns said. “I later learned she used the dictionary extensively when she was writing to learn the words. She had studied English in school, but when you don’t use it all the time, it gets rusty. She was always lamenting about her poor English. Her English was better than my Finnish, though.”

Over the years the two women kept in contact occasionally and almost exclusively by mail.

“Over the years it wasn’t every month, two months, three months. There were periods when we didn’t talk for a while. It was all letters up until five or six years ago, until one day I decided, ‘Hey, I’m going to call,’” Ms. Kerns said.

Throughout all of the years of conversing with a person she had not met, Ms. Kerns said she thought about making the long trek to meet her pen pal.

“I had thought about (going to Finland) many, many times. It was sort of on my bucket list. Since I’m not getting any younger and she isn’t either, it was a sense of urgency for me,” she said.

Her son, Adam Caruso, suggested taking the trip to Finland about a year ago and the plans came to fruition on June 20, when Ms. Kerns and her son landed in Helsinki.

“We met in the airport. They came to pick us up. I personally was busy looking for customs, making sure we did everything right. It was Adam who spotted them,” Ms. Kerns said. “It was kind of one of those rare moments. In a way you kind of don’t know how to react. It was a kind, sweet moment, and we hugged.”

Ms. Kerns and her son spent 10 days abroad, nearly all of them with Ms. Hammar and her husband, Raimo.

“The meeting was the ultimate reason to go over there, but we were basically tourists,” Mr. Caruso said. “We went to a few museums, took some cruises. Helsinki is the capital of Finland. It’s surrounded on three sides by water. On one of the islands there was a zoo, on another there was a military academy, on one there were vacation homes.”

“We tried to cram in as much of the cultural stuff as we could. ... I think Marja thanked us for enabling her to see more of the city she didn’t know about.”

While this trip was in planning, Ms. Kerns tracked down another instrumental figure in the story: the former teacher who had set the friendship in motion.

“I found (Ms. Barrows) via Google. I actually talked with her a couple times. I let her know that this was something being planned,” Ms. Kerns said.

But this once-in-a-lifetime meeting between pen pals may not be once in a lifetime.

“It would be up in the air at this point. Marja and Raimo traveled to Spain and Portugal before, but that’s about it,” Ms. Kerns said.

She paused and said, “When there is another meeting, it would probably be Spain or Portugal, someplace warm.”

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