Friends reunite

Penny Miller, left, and Mandy Whitehead, right, first met when Whitehead came to live with Miller’s family as a foreign exchange student in 1970. They’ve now reunited after 48 years apart.

OTTUMWA — It’s been 48 years since Penny Miller and Mandy Whitehead last saw one another, but one could be mistaken in thinking they’ve been friends since childhood.

The two originally met while Whitehead was a foreign exchange student, when she came from the United Kingdom to live with Miller’s family for the 1970-1971 school year at OHS.

“It changed my life, really. It was great, because people here are so friendly and welcoming,” Whitehead said. “It made me very conceited, though. There weren’t many foreigners here then so everybody spoiled me to death. I went home and thought I was very important.”

“She said her mom kind of kicked it out of her,” Miller said.

Although the US and UK share a language, Whitehead said it was still a unique cultural experience.

“In those dates, Brits were quite reserved,” she said. “You certainly didn’t cheer at the school matches. I had to go to a pep assembly, and I never saw anything like it. I enjoyed it in the end. I found football a bit cold.”

While they seem close now, always laughing and finishing each other’s sentences, the two didn’t speak to or see one another for 48 years after Whitehead went back home.

The two also didn’t have the best relationship when Whitehead was living with Miller’s family. Miller said it was difficult welcoming another person her age into the house, which the two both laugh about now.

“I don’t think I was the nicest to her at times,” Miller said. “As a teenager, you just have your preconceived little box that everyone is supposed to fit in.”

Social media brought them back together. After becoming friends on Facebook, the two began to slowly reconnect with occasional texts back and forth. But it wasn’t until Whitehead learned she would be visiting the US for work that the two made an attempt to see one another.

Much has changed since the two last saw each other. Both have since married and had families and careers. However, both said their personalities have changed very little, and Whitehead said Miller looks exactly as she remembered her.

The high school has changed radically since they were students. Much of the current building, including the Vo-Tech wing and the current cafeteria, didn’t exist at the time. But despite that, and a fresh coat of paint, Whitehead said it was just like she remembered it.

“The steps are a bit worn now,” she said with a laugh.

Ottumwa has changed as well. Whitehead said the town is more diverse and active than she remembered it, and was surprised to see people out walking and bicycling around. She was happy to see the improvements made downtown, and said the death of small-town main streets is something that’s afflicted British towns as well.

“Once you’re in a different country, you realize people are the same the world over,” Whitehead said.

The two have already made plans to make more regular visits. Whitehead wants to come back for the 50th class reunion, and Miller said her family is making plans to come to Wales. Whitehead, who works as a tour guide, already promised to show them around.

“I’ve just realized what a mistake it was to let so many friendships drop,” Whitehead said. “But how easy it is to pick up again.”

Jack Langland can be reached at jlangland@ottumwacourier.com.

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