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A 'chance' friendship — for 75 years

Sunday, May 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:28 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Betty Eyestone, left, drove up to Detroit Lakes with her daughter and granddaughter to visit Pat Duerner in the summer of 2008. The women stayed in Pat's childhood home, which she still owns. Betty and Pat lived next door to each other on the lake and spent summers playing with other neighborhood children.

This article has been updated to correct *Betty Eyestone's age. It is 83.

Betty Eyestone and Pat Duerner say they’ve never had to put much effort into their friendship. They will say it just happened, starting at a birthday party with a game of “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?” and lasting through high school, college, marriage, moves, children, grandchildren, widowhood, travel and whatever comes next. And when asked if they can remember a time, just one time, when they experienced a bit of a rough patch, they say they never have.

“Either that, or we’ve forgotten,” Betty says, laughing.

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It’s a sweet laugh, one that keeps the grandkids up at night when the two friends stay at Betty’s daughter’s house in St. Louis after picking up Pat from the airport. So while the two may say their friendship is some sort of happenstance, serendipity just might be the better word.

Seventy-five years of serendipity.

“We’re quite opposite,” Betty says, "but we’re pretty agreeable. She’s very creative, peppy, a self-starter — all the things I’m not. She seems to know what she wants to do and gets it done, whereas I tend to linger.”

Is that why you’re so close?

“I’ve wondered,” she says.

Two separate lives

Pat Duerner is 83 and lives in Deephaven, a suburb of Minneapolis, in a spacious contemporary designed by her late husband, Dick, a naval aviator and then architect. As she describes it over the phone, she mentions a home improvement project she recently completed. The carpet on her stairs needed to go, so she ripped it up and refinished the stairway one step at a time, one day at a time.

When she’s not ripping up carpet or making an Easter dress for her 9-year-old granddaughter, she’s painting watercolors or taking classes at the University of Minnesota or spending time with her two daughters’ families – one 20 minutes away and the other in Montana. She loves to talk about her grandchildren and enjoys the hour or so she gets to spend with the 9-year-old, who comes over every morning before school.

“You won’t believe it. She likes SpaghettiO’s,” Pat confides. “And oh, her mom knows. We decided she’s getting her vitamin C with the tomatoes.”

Betty Eyestone is 83* and has lived in her large house in southwest Columbia since 1972, when she, her husband and four children moved here from the East Coast. She’s never ripped out a carpet, but she did set up her own wireless Internet after the company took too long to get to it.

So you and Pat e-mail?

“No,” Betty says.

“I don’t do the computer,” Pat says. “I resist it. There’s no reason why.”

Betty just laughs and says they catch up on the phone.

Now that Betty’s husband is gone and her kids are all over the country, she spends a lot of time volunteering at First Presbyterian church and filling “buddy packs” — backpacks to send home with Columbia school kids who need extra food for the weekend. She loves spending time with her family, especially the two of her seven grandchildren, who are students at MU.

This September, Betty and 20 of her college girlfriends will meet in Napa Valley – their choice for this year’s reunion, a tradition they began in 1982. They started the travel ritual by meeting every other year. But as they have gotten older, they decided every other year was too long to wait, so now it’s a yearly reunion. Pat won’t be there because these are Betty’s friends from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.; Pat graduated from the University of Minnesota. But the two women will see each other soon. Pat plans to make a trip to Columbia this summer, after she gets back from Montana to see her grandson graduate from college.

Postmarked: 1950

Large windows in Betty’s living room invite light in to fill the house, which sits on Hulen Lake. On the coffee table closest to the windows is a collage of pictures — some black-and-white, some color — and a letter postmarked March 13, 1950. Twelve cents in stamps are affixed to the upper-right-hand corner and, apart from a few tears on the envelope, the contents are perfect. Postage for airmail at the time was 6 cents per ounce, so the extra postage covered the cost of the enclosed black-and-white wedding photographs and four-page letter. The envelope is addressed to Betty Johnson in Bethesda, Maryland, from Pat Duerner in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Betty picks up the envelope and asks if she should read the letter out loud. She looks at the postmark and says it’s been a long time since she’s read it. Fifty-nine years.

She unfolds the pages from the envelope and flips through them one by one, turning each page over and skimming Pat’s beautiful script. She sits back in the chair she had pulled up to the coffee table, finally relaxes, and begins to read:

Dearest B.J. I’ll bet you’ve nearly given up hearing from me — really, I’ll admit I’m quite a poke at writing letters — but I think of you lots, old girl.

Betty smiles but doesn’t look up. In the letter, Pat thanks her for being a beautiful and efficient maid of honor and for the roasterette, which had saved the newlywed couple from bologna.

Betty, you’ll never believe this, but I enjoy cooking and we haven’t had bologna yet.

Betty laughs, but this time it’s deeper and stronger. Fifty-nine years later, the two friends still share an inside joke, but Betty doesn’t explain. “You’ll have to ask her about the bologna,” she says and continues to read.

As she does, a lifetime of memories surface. Early memories from summers spent swimming in Detroit Lake in west central Minnesota, of being scared off the dock by Betty’s brother and Pat’s cousin who put leeches in tin cans. Later memories from an outing to see “Wizard of Oz” when it first came out in theaters in 1939 and then skipping down the middle of the road together — the yellow brick road of their combined imaginations. Even later memories of trips with husbands and, later still, trips without husbands.

They’re memories that began in the summer of 1934 on a lakeshore in Minnesota with that game of “Button, Button” at Pat’s 8th birthday party.

Betty remembers, and reads. It is 1950 again. She is on the East Coast, and Pat and Dick have just moved to Corpus Christi — their latest posting with the Navy. Dick’s career took them from Pensacola, Fla., to Corpus Christi to Key West, Fla., and then back up to Minnesota. They lived in Minneapolis then moved back home to Detroit Lakes before finally finding that perfect lot to build on in Deephaven.  

I hope we can go home this summer for a while. We may get leave in June. When do you plan to be home? I hope we can both be there at the same time. Mom tells me your folks have fixed up their house so nicely. From what mom writes, our folks are having fun out there on the lakeshore!

Life on Detroit Lake was the anchor of Betty and Pat’s budding friendship. When Pat’s family moved next door to Betty’s, the two girls spent the entire summer out on the lake playing with neighborhood friends.

“We actually had a neighborhood of girls all within a few grades,” Pat says. “Ruth Dorothy, Francis, Beverly, myself and Betty — one house after the other. Betty and I were the first in that area.” They say there weren’t any boys, just Betty’s two brothers, but Dick was a Detroit Lake boy Pat knew since the seventh grade. “He also lived along our lakeshore,” Pat says.

Our lakeshore. Yes. It was theirs. It was home.

The two women have never lived in the same city — let alone in the same state— since college, yet they have always found their way back to the lake in the summers. They credit their mothers with starting and nurturing this friendship that endures seemingly without effort. Maybe it was learned. Maybe it was inherited. After all, their mothers were close friends themselves and stayed that way until they died, Pat’s mother at 99 and Betty’s at 105.

After the girls left home for college, they continued to hear news of each other from their mothers and would see each other back at the lake for summers. But they both will tell you in the exact same words, “We never said, ‘Let’s be friends forever.' It just happened.”

When college was over, Pat taught home economics for a year before marrying Dick, and Betty moved out east with her zoology degree to work in the lab in the National Cancer Institute. There, she met Hal Eyestone.

I’ve done a little sewing — making a sleeveless blouse and a circular skirt. … One of the stores is having a sewing contest and I may enter. The prize is $50 — of course I have the money spent already — ha!

“She probably won,” Betty muses now, not looking up from her memories. She’s still back in 1950 in Maryland, reading the letter from her friend in Corpus Christi.

The last few days we’ve been fixing the place up and we think it looks kind of cute now. Dick built a large coffee table and lacquered it black. It’s really very attractive — that boy is so talented! Then we got a large red shag rug and I’ve made red sofa pillows. Oh, I tell you, we’re really red around here.

I’m anxious to hear how you and Hal are coming along.

Things on that front were coming along nicely, and though Betty’s parents had never met Hal, they took Betty’s word on him, and the two married back home in Detroit Lakes. Pat wasn’t able to return the favor of standing up as Betty’s bridesmaid. By then, she and Dick had relocated to Key West, Fla. — their last posting with the Navy before moving back to Minnesota and the start of Dick’s career in architecture.

“No, I wasn’t able to come up for her wedding,” Pat confirms by phone, thinking back to 1952. “I’m sorry about that. Key West is such a long ways away.”

As the years progressed and the two women started their families, they always made a point to get back to the lakes during the summer. Sometimes the two couples would travel together, or meet up somewhere while they were on their way to another place.

It’s been several years now since Dick and Hal have passed away, giving the women one more part of life to share. But despite their widowhood, and despite the distance that has separated them since college, they have never considered moving closer. Neither would leave their families. Besides, they see each other at least twice a year — usually once in the summer and again on their annual trip with Elderhostel, an educational vacation program for people over 55.

Have you been sewing much lately, or just gadding about? I surely do wish you could drop in for a visit.

A bowl of seashells sits on a table in the entryway of Betty’s Hulen Lake home. They’re souvenirs from an excursion the two took on their most recent Elderhostel to Florida’s Sanibel Island. Throughout the years, Betty and Pat have been on several of these vacations, and they have it down to a science: They scan the brochures to pick a destination together, then each proposes different excursions once there. Since both say neither one has changed much in the past 75 years, it seems their system will work for a long time to come.

Is there a secret? Something you’ve learned about making friendship work?

“If you keep exchanging gifts, you stay friends,” Pat says, recalling the advice of her mother-in-law.

Betty says the same and mentions they’ve exchanged Christmas gifts ever since she can remember. Nothing fancy, they will say, but always thoughtful.

And what was that inside joke, the one about the bologna? On the other end of the phone, Pat cracks up. In between bursts of laughter, she tells this story:

It was a summer day, and Betty came over to her house at the lake. They were either in high school or their first year of college, but as usual, they weren’t doing much, until Pat remembered that her mother had asked her to get lunch out for her father. He was due home any minute, and “I didn’t have a thing in mind,” Pat says. “So in desperation, I threw a ring of bologna on the table! But I had the tablecloth on.”

The 1950 letter is the only tangible evidence of communication from 75 years of such stories, but it’s just one exchange among the hundreds of hours spent talking on the phone, in person and on their trips. The tapestry of this friendship is a careful stitching of memories of bologna on tablecloths, leeches in tin cans, skipping down the yellow brick road, weddings, births, deaths and vacations. It’s an overflowing reservoir of memories remembered and memories forgotten, and memories yet to be made.  

I surely do hope you’ll write and tell me what you’ve been doing – I’m dying for mail.

Lots of Love,

Pat

And, soon, Betty will write. Only she won’t need to put a 42-cent stamp on the upper-right-hand corner of the envelope. Pat says she’s finally giving in to the computer age and going wireless. As soon as her son-in-law sets it up, that is. Or, maybe, just maybe, she’ll do it herself.

But, we won’t hold our breath because, as they both say, neither one has really changed in the past 75 years.


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