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1980's pen pals from Montana and Ohio renew friendship in Billings

Posted at 12:29 AM, Oct 03, 2023

BILLINGS - A friendship started nearly four decades ago using an old way of communicating, the U.S. Postal Service.

The pen pals from Marysville, Ohio and Laurel, Montana eventually lost contact.

Last week, they celebrated with a reunion in Billings.

Two eighth graders started sending the letters in the late 1980s through a 4-H pen pal program.

They continued on through college and lost track of each other when one of them stopped posting on social media.

Then the woman came to Billings for a 4-H conference and through a series of events, they were reconnected and met for the first time in person.

Emily Masters called her mother for copies of the letters and art that Dan Burns sent almost 40 years ago.

“Oh, this is my mom, maybe she knows where these letters are," Masters said before answering her phone. "She said I think you saved every letter.”

Her mother texted her pictures of what Burns sent.

Last week after losing touch for the last 10 to 20 years, they finally met in person.

 “It was like no time had passed," Masters said. "I had never met him in person, but when I saw him in person, it just felt like I knew him.”

“We're coming up as adolescents and I think we could safely bounce ideas off of each other," Burns said. "And it wasn't one of our immediate classmates.”

“He's my brother," Masters said. "I don't think you can just create this kind of stuff. I mean, that's why I'm just overwhelmed with emotion because it's just so special.”

Burns has pictures of Masters in his family collage.

Emily, along with her friend and colleague, Erin Simpson-Sloan, came to Billings last week for a 4-H convention.

 “It was 4-H that brought us together and it was also 4 h that reunited us.”

During the break from the meetings, Emily and Erin looked to do some early Christmas shopping for their families at the Montana Dress Company, where after hearing the story, Corinne Kelly helped search for Dan.

"And then you showed me," Masters said to Kelly. "That's on her Instagram," .

Kelly had found Dan's wife Becky on Instagram.

“I got to meet them," Kelly, a sales associate at the store, said. "Her emotion and Erin's. It's just a really great story.”

Through the years they shared just about everything including Dan naming his Harley Davidson, Emily, after a girl let him down.

“The reason I named the motorcycle after her because it was almost like a surrogate in a way," Burns said. "I can count on this. I can count on her.”

And Dan turned to Emily when he was ready to get married.

“He had met Becky, his wife now, and he was sharing all about her," Masters said. "I was asking him questions. Is this the one? And he says yes Em, I think this is the one.”

 And the bond has grown to include Dan's wife, Emily's family, and Erin and her family.

“Not only do I have my Dan but his wife," Masters said. "She's so special too. I feel like I have a sister now. We just love them.”

“What makes them so special is they can drop off and just pick right back up where they left off," Becky Burns, Dan's wife, said about the pen pals. "And I just think that's a great story of hope.”

“It's like a Hallmark movie in the making right here in Billings, Montana," said Simpson-Sloan. "All anything we're missing is a little bit of snow and we got our Hallmark movie for 2023.”

“We're gonna maintain contact this time," Burns said. "We're not going to let it drift apart at all.”

"My new Ohio friends," Kelly said about Masters and Simpson-Sloan.

Kelly and others at the Montana Dress Company have also become part of the friendship.

"We'll miss you but we will be back," Simpson-Sloan said.