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Pen pals spent 70 years exchanging 700 letters. It started by accident.

Gloria Bruce, left, and Shirley Clements ride in a St. Patrick's Day parade near New Orleans on Sunday. The pair have been pen pals for 70 years. (Courtesy of Gloria Bruce)
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Gloria Bruce and Shirley Clements weren’t supposed to be pen pals.

Their 70-year correspondence resulted from a happy accident in 1953. Bruce wrote to a British girl, who decided to trade letters with a friend so each would have more in common with her match.

Now Bruce and Clements’s friendship has spanned about 700 letters, two continents and numerous adventures in England and Louisiana and on five cruises around the world. The pair, both 81, have transitioned from writing to calling, emailing and texting as technology has evolved.

On Sunday, the duo rode on a float in a St. Patrick’s Day parade just outside New Orleans — an activity they chose because it was one of the few local events they had not already done together.

“We’re just like two little children,” Bruce said as they prepared for the celebration. “We’ve been giggling since she came here.”

The women’s unique friendship, previously reported by New Orleans-based television station WWL-TV, began when they were in elementary school — Bruce in New Orleans and Clements in Batley, England. One of Bruce’s classmates had a British pen pal, and some of that girl’s friends wanted writing buddies of their own.

Bruce, 11, volunteered and wrote to a girl named Susan. But she said when she got a letter back, it was from Clements.

No matter — Bruce and Clements had a lot in common. Both loved to read and collected stamps. Both had learned to embroider from their mothers. Their birthdays were 10 days apart.

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As they got older, their similarities deepened. The women both had children, and both of their first husbands died. They even have similar builds, which Clements said made it easy for her to borrow a nightgown once when her luggage got lost in transit to New Orleans.

The women’s means of connection changed with time, too. At first, they wrote long letters and weighed the envelopes at the post office before sending them across the ocean. To exchange Christmas presents, Bruce said, they had to mail the packages in November. They watched the clock during their first phone call because a few minutes cost $35.

The duo finally met in person in 1985 when Clements, a biochemist, stopped in New Orleans after a conference in California. The cross-country flight was turbulent, Clements said, and she wondered whether she would survive to finally lay eyes on her kindred spirit.

Bruce joked that Clements had another motivation for coming to the Big Easy: “She wanted some of our beignets, that’s what she wanted,” Bruce said, laughing.

As soon as they met, their worries about whether they would like each other in person evaporated. They spent their visit going to the French Quarter and doing a crawfish boil with Bruce’s family. Their rapport, they said, was easy.

“We got on like a house on fire from the first minute to now,” Clements said.

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After that first visit, the friends saw each other whenever they could. Clements stopped in Louisiana after other work trips. Bruce flew to Clements’s home near Manchester three times. They went on cruises in the Mediterranean, Baltic and Caribbean seas.

By the time Clements landed in New Orleans this month, it had been 12 years since the women had seen each other. Bruce ran to her in the airport, and they embraced.

After 70 years of correspondence, the women consider themselves sisters and “two peas in a pod.” Bruce laughs at Clements’s use of British phrases. Clements marvels at how Bruce worked in her husband’s hardware store while raising children and serving as a Cub Scouts leader. They sympathize with each other through heartaches, Clements said, and support each other along the way.

But Bruce said the true secret to their decades-long friendship is laughter.

“She’s fun,” Bruce said. “What can I say?”

Clements, meanwhile, attributes their staying power to the strength of their bond.

“We’re just wonderful friends, and we love each other very much,” she said. “And we hope to be able to keep doing this for many years.”