Love Stories: Trans-Atlantic pen pals marry, raise a family
They spill from the bin in a colorful array, 400 of them in all. Shiny heart stickers on pink envelopes tumble among airmail envelopes bordered in red, white and blue.
The letters tell the story of Tony and Debbi Dyson’s courtship – a courtship that spanned the miles between Haverhill, England, and Hermiston, Ore.
It was 1983. Friends of Debbi’s moved to England to teach for a year. While there, they attended the church where Tony’s father was the pastor, and the two families struck up a friendship.
“The wife (Jean) asked me if I’d like a pen pal in Oregon,” Tony, 55, said.
He agreed. His fiancée had recently broken up with him on his sister’s wedding day, and no other local girl had captured his eye.
Meanwhile, Jean had already written Debbi a glowing letter about the pastor’s son and asked if she would like to correspond with him. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll write to him – as long as he writes first,’ ” she recalled.
A week later, she received a letter. She replied. And soon the letters flew back and forth across the ocean. “We wrote every day,” she said.
They started corresponding in December and by February, Tony said, “I knew I’d marry her. Every day was like Christmas when we got a letter.”
Their missives were full of the details of daily life, pictures of themselves and their families, and their hopes for the future. “We truly fell in love before we met,” said Debbi, 53. “From his pictures I could just see something in his face – something different.”
And then the trans-Atlantic phone calls began. The first time Tony called, Debbi said, “I answered the phone and when I heard his voice, I started screaming! I ran up and down the hallway screaming!”
She finally calmed down enough to have a conversation. Those phone calls proved just as addicting as the letters. Debbi’s phone company called her and told her she had to set up a payment plan because her bill was so high.
In June, she traveled to England for a three-week visit. She was met at the airport by Tony’s mother and a van full of church ladies. They’d attended a conference in London and volunteered to pick up the American girl.
When the van delivered her to the designated meeting spot, Tony greeted her with a rose from his dad’s garden. “A beautiful rose for a beautiful lady,” he said, while his mother and assorted church ladies beamed in approval from the van.
Three days later he proposed and she accepted. On the Fourth of July, he slipped an engagement ring on her finger. “I loved his red hair, his smile – he was so genuine,” Debbi said.
After she returned to Oregon, Tony got busy filling out all the paperwork needed for him to marry his bride and move to America.
On March 2, 1985, they married in Hermiston. Tony took a job with the Payless Drug Store chain (now Rite Aid) and worked for the company for 10 years. A son, Andrew arrived in 1987, followed by daughter, Hannah in 1991.
Tony’s work took them to several cities around the Pacific Northwest. A job with Edge Construction Supply brought the family to Spokane in 2012. Shortly after the move, Debbi launched Timeless Simplicity, a Facebook-based business specializing in repurposed, salvaged and handmade furniture and home décor. She also enjoys baby-sitting their granddaughter, Piper. Tony serves as her willing accomplice in the decorating venture.
“When you’re married to your best friend it makes everything easy,” he said. “Anymore, people give up too easily on a marriage – if it isn’t working they just get out.”
In their South Hill living room they sorted through the letters that brought them together, chuckling at the notes on the outside of the envelopes, “I dreamed about you last night!” read one.
Debbi also saved the rose he brought her the day they met. As she held it, she talked about the faith she said has made their love so enduring. “We’ve always put the Lord in the center of our marriage.”
Tony smiled. “Honestly, we were a match made in heaven.”