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Longtime pen pals bridge distance to meet for first time

Internet pen pals Rose Hartwig of Litchfield and Gavin Hill of Sweden visit Lake Superior Canal Park in Duluth. The two friends finally met in person for the first time this summer. Submitted photo

Not all stories have happy endings. But some do.

Last year at this time, Rose Hartwig of Litchfield and Gavin Hill of Sweden were long-distance pen pals waiting for their chance to meet in person. This summer, they were able to bridge that distance and meet each other -- for the first time -- when Hill made the 26-hour trip to Minnesota.

Although the two are best friends and have spoken over the phone or online nearly every day for the last 16 years, they had never met in person. Hill was supposed to travel to Minnesota last summer, but because of a technicality with his passport, he couldn't leave Sweden.

"As soon as Gavin couldn't make it last year, we decided to try again for this year," Hartwig said. "He knew that he wanted to come. It was just a matter of getting the dates together."

The friends met 16 years ago when Hartwig, bed-ridden with a life-threatening physical condition, turned to the Internet for companionship. In cyberspace, she met Hill, an author who was so struck by her story that he vowed to bring her comfort by writing her poems.

"When we first met online, Rose was very sick," said Hill, who is originally from England. "Just a couple of hours after she joined [the chat room], I contacted her and asked her if she wanted to be my pen pal. We have found so many parallels between our lives. I think when you talk to a person without actually being with them, you get to know them on a deeper level."

Still, meeting each other face to face was indescribable, both friends say, and well worth the wait. Hartwig remembers vividly the moment she finally saw Hill walk through customs at the airport.

"When he came through, it was surreal," she said. "Time kind of seemed to stand still. My first thought was, 'Oh, he isn't as tall as I thought he would be.'"

Over the last month, Hartwig and Hill have spent every minute together. Hartwig arranged events all over the state where Hill could speak about his published work and his upcoming novel, "The Changling," and children's musical, "William Gray and the Family Next Door," which will have an anti-bullying message.

"The events have been wonderful," Hill said. "I think that the Midwest is without a doubt the best place I could be, because I feel like I'm seeing the real America. Everyone has been so friendly. I don't think I've met anybody that I haven't gotten along with."

For Hartwig, seeing other people respond to Hill's work brings her deep pride.

"It's thrilling for him because it's his work, but I feel like I'm a part of his work," she said. "He's read it to me for so many years and bounced ideas off of me. When I sit and watch him and hear him, I know that I'm just beaming, because I believe so much in him."

Besides the events, the two friends have also had plenty of time this past month for sightseeing and outings. They traveled to Lake Superior, Red Wing, Pipestone and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Hill also had the chance to celebrate his first Fourth of July.

"I've had to pinch myself that he really is here," Hartwig said. "We have so much fun together and have so much to talk about. I can honestly say this has been the best month of my life. It's gone by way too fast."

For Hill, the month he's spent with Hartwig has special meaning.

"For me personally, this month has meant meeting a person who I have admired for 16 years, a person who I have known as a dear friend, a person who has grown with me and given me the confidence to do things I wouldn't have previously thought possible," Hill said. "Having someone like Rosie behind me gives me strength. I can't wait to come back."

Hartwig echoes those sentiments, saying Hill's trip to Minnesota has given their story the happy ending it deserves.

"When you come so close to death, there is so much sorrow and grief -- but then meeting Gavin brought me so much joy," she said. "I can't imagine my life without him and feel so blessed to have had this month with him. It's been the icing on the friendship."


Rose&gavin1: Internet pen pals Rose Hartwig of Litchfield and Gavin Hill of Sweden visit Lake Superior Canal Park in Duluth. The two friends finally met in person for the first time this summer.

Rose&gavin2: British native Gavin Hill stands in front of the American flags in Litchfield during his first trip to the United States. He spent the last month traveling much of Minnesota and the Midwest with his longtime pen pal Rose Hartwig, of Litchfield, who he has known for 16 years but never met in person until this summer.

Rose&gavin3: Rose Hartwig and Gavin Hill smile at one of Hill's July events at the Litchfield Library. Hill, who spent a month in Minnesota visiting his longtime pen pal Hartwig, toured around the state speaking about his novels and children's books.