‘Your friend, Mike Conrad’: Huntington Beach woman reconnects with family of Vietnam War pen pal
Like many during the coronavirus pandemic, Nancy Mikaelian Madey decided to do a little bit of cleaning.
The 59-year-old Huntington Beach resident found a letter she received five decades ago, and it brought back a flood of memories.
Mikaelian Madey was a third-grader at Jerstad-Agerholm Elementary School in Racine, Wis., in 1970, when her class wrote letters to unknown soldiers in the Vietnam War. A couple of weeks later, she got a letter back from someone named Mike Conrad.
He explained that he was from North Carolina, then a 23-year-old newlywed, and stationed in south Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army.
“Back in those days, getting a letter addressed to you as a little kid was a big deal, coming in the U.S. mail,” Mikaelian Madey said. “I don’t know why, but I just saved it. It meant a lot to me.
“He said it was monsoon season over there, which meant that it rained a lot. He even gave me a definition, because as a third-grader, I didn’t know what that was. He told me to continue to study hard and do good in school, because education was important. He just signed it, ‘Your friend, Mike Conrad,’ so I had his name.”
Mikaelian Madey wrote Conrad once more but never heard back. Still, when she found his letter again last month, she decided to reach out.
Some online research showed Mikaelian Madey that Conrad died on Jan. 2, 2019 at the age of 72. The longtime resident of Gastonia, N.C., left behind his wife, Becky, children, Jason and Peter, and four grandchildren.
Mikaelian Madey sent a letter to Becky Conrad with a copy of her late husband’s correspondence 50 years ago.
“I included my email address, not knowing whether or not her address was current or if it would even get there,” Mikaelian Madey said. “I kept my fingers crossed and remained optimistic.”
It got there, all right. Across the country, a jaw dropped when this new letter was received.
“It was just amazing,” Becky Conrad said. “It’s one of those hard-to-describe feelings.”
She emailed Mikaelian Madey that Mike had kept her second letter for all of these years. Becky had found it last year, when going through her late husband’s letters sent from Vietnam.
“I got goosebumps when I got that email from his wife,” Mikaelian Madey said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It went from a good story to a great story, by him having kept my letter for 50 years as well … I just wonder, did it mean that much to him, or why did he save it?”
Becky Conrad sent back to Mikaelian Madey a copy of a picture of Mike in Vietnam in 1970, as well as a family picture taken in 2017. She also has sent a laminated obituary from his funeral and a file of songs and eulogies.
Mike and Becky Conrad were married for nearly 51 years. He was an avid traveler and remained involved with his church, First United Methodist Church, until the end of his life.
Mikaelian Madey’s only regret was that she didn’t reach out sooner, when her pen pal of long ago was still alive. But now she has a new friend, and it’s Becky Conrad.
Mikaelian Madey said her own family, including her husband, Randy, and children, David and Nicole, have responded with amazement to the story. She is of Armenian descent, and she decided to plant a tree there in honor of Mike Conrad through the Armenia Tree Project.
“We talk all the time,” Mikaelian Madey said of her friendship with Becky Conrad. “We just became really good telephone friends … 50 years later, [Mike Conrad] managed to unite two families together.”
Becky Conrad chuckled when asked about her new friendship with the former third-grader from Racine, who now lives about 2,400 miles away.
“Hardly a day goes by when I don’t speak to Nancy,” she said. “It’s been an amazing, wonderful journey. It’s memories from the past, but a new relationship, and it’s just very, very special.”
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