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Penpals’ Olympic promise is fulfilled... 36 years later
IF ever there was an Olympic medal for writing letters, penpals Jane Hill and Debbie Legere would be on top of the podium taking gold. The analogy is a sound one too, for their literary efforts are linked by two Olympic Games – Montreal in 1976 and London 2012.
Their 40-year friendship has led to the women seeing both games together, even though they have only met once in between. When Debbie steps off the long haul jet from Canada next week, it will be the first time since 1978 that the pair have seen each other.
“Obviously we have exchanged emails and pictures,” said Jane, who lives in Bath Road, Worcester.
“But this is the first time for 34 years that I have been able to give her a hug.”
Tickets have been lined up for Jane and her family to take Debbie to see Olympic handball and basketball events, which is a bit better than at the Montreal games, when as two young girls they joined the crowd for the Poland v Iran football game.
“It was just as hard to get tickets then as it is now,” Jane laughed.
“Still, we enjoyed the atmosphere and it was an experience.”
The story goes back to the early 1970s when Jane was living in Harrow, London, and their next door neighbour Marjorie Vachell went on a round-the-world trip.
Marjorie fell in love with and stayed in Canada. Ten-year-old Jane asked her to find her a penfriend and Marjorie’s new boss Hance Legere had a 12-year-old daughter called Debbie, who was keen to write to a penpal in England.
The two girls struck up a regular correspondence back in 1972 and four years later, Debbie's home town of Montreal hosted the Olympic Games. Jane’s parents paid to fly their 14-year-old daughter on her own to Montreal and the two girls met for the first time.
“It must have cost my parents a lot in those days,” said Jane.
“And as a young girl travelling on my own, it was quite an experience.
I flew Air Canada with a stewardess assigned to look after me.
“She even gave me a sherry, which I doubt she was supposed to do. The first thing I noticed about Debbie was her Canadian accent.
“It seemed very exotic to a girl from Harrow.”
Jane stayed for three weeks and went to the Games with the Legere family, who had managed to get tickets to the Poland football match.
“We also saw Princess Anne who was with the British Equestrian team in the stables,” she said.
“But we didn’t get close enough to speak to her.”
The girls got on like a house on fire and at the end of Jane’s threeweek stay promised each other that should the Olympic Games ever be held in Britain, the two of them would go together.
Since then, their respective parents, Hance and Rosemary Legere and Harold and Lesley Dudman have met up several times both in Canada and the UK, but the girls have only met again once, in London back in 1978.
Of the four parents, only Jane’s mother Lesley survives.
Now, 40 years after those first tentative letters, Debbie is coming back to England.
London is hosting the 30th Olympiad and Jane is making good the promise she made all those years ago. Jane Hill (as she now is) has been living in Worcester since 1988 but her mother still lives in London and from there, Jane will be taking her mum, Debbie and Jane’s two teenagers, George and Emma, to see handball and basketball events at the London Olympic Games.
“Debbie will then spend a week in Worcester with us experiencing the best Britain has to offer,” Jane said.
“We are both looking forward to meeting again after all these years with great excitement.
“We have kept in touch through school, university, careers, romances, marriages, divorces, the arrival of children and the lives of many pets. When we met back in 1976 the world was a very different place.”
Over the years, the handwritten letters they used to send frequently have turned to phone calls and emails.
Virtually everything about their lives has changed since the Montreal Olympics, but their transatlantic connection has been a very special relationship.