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RYAN BAKKEN: A pen pal for life

Andi Cooley and her dog Augie. Submitted photo.

When Lakota (N.D.) High School’s seniors were first-graders, they communicated with a pen-pal-on-steroids named Andi Cooley.

Although it was supposed to be a one-year arrangement with their deeply committed pen pal, the relationship continued to grow. For the frosting on the cake, Cooley will make the trip from Texas to attend the students’ graduation on May 25.

“That’s pretty cool,” said Morgan Uriell, one of 13 graduating seniors.

Cooley’s quite cool, too.

The friendship began when first-grade teacher Shirley Ferguson signed up her class for the Trucker Buddy program. The program matched long-haul semi-truck drivers with classrooms of grade-schoolers. The idea was for the drivers to send postcards from locations across the country, with the students tracking the route on a map and learning about the USA.

Cooley went beyond the call of duty, as she mailed more than 200 postcards, telephoned the students regularly and sent gifts that represented the parts of the country where she traveled. Some gifts were quirky, such as a Texas tumbleweed.

“The box the tumbleweed came in was half the size of my desk,” said Ferguson, who still teaches at Lakota. “The tumbleweed was quite the specimen.”

A decade ago, Cooley’s dedication to the program landed her the national Trucker Buddy of the Year award, which meant an expense-paid trip to Lakota in her rig.

Among activities during her visit, the trucker taught the first-graders a card game that she named “Cows Don’t Dance But They Like to be Asked.”

The relationship didn’t end when first grade ended. Trucker-turned-nurse Andi and Lakota munchkins-turned-seniors have stayed in contact all along. She continued sending gifts and making donations to charities in the students’ names, including the adoption of a winged bat that the students named Bruce.

“She’s funny, with a kooky personality,” Uriell said.

Cooley, still living in Texas at age 49, eagerly pleads guilty to kooky.

“It’s important to give back and make community connections,” she said. “Community can be local or it can be all over the place. They’re not strangers to me; they’re family.

“It’s important for people to get out of their local sphere and learn about places. There’s a whole big country out there.”

But Cooley gives the credit for the long-term relationship to Ferguson, who is retiring at age 63 at the end of the school year, several years after she was eligible.

“Shirley and her willingness has been my inspiration,” Cooley said. “She’s a teacher beyond a teacher, an amazing woman who is enthusiastic about everything, cares about children and wants to expand their horizons.

“It seems natural to me that when you make a friend, you keep a friend.”