Kris Feeney and Col. Ned Felder hug at their first meeting, with his oldest son in the background.

Kris Feeney and Col. Ned Felder hug at their first meeting, with his oldest son in the background. (South Carolina State University)

Col. Ned Edward Felder was serving in Vietnam when he was surprised by a care package from a stranger. It wasn’t the contents that touched him; it was the idea that someone had taken the trouble to send it. Alone in the midst of a war thousands of miles from his own home and family, the kindness felt enormous.

Kristina Olson, a shy 12-year-old girl who had knocked on neighbors’ doors in Michigan to ask for donations to send to soldiers as part of a Camp Fire group, was just as surprised, and delighted, when she saw that a stranger had taken the time to write a thank-you note for the gift.

So, she wrote back.

And thus began an unlikely friendship, an exchange of letters that began in 1967 and spanned years, continents, and deep cultural divides. Felder was 30 years old, a Black man raised in poverty in South Carolina who had lifted himself through college and law school and had become a captain in the U.S. Army. Olson, who is White, wrote to him about her school, which was in an apple orchard. About Camp Fire Girls, practicing piano and learning to play the French horn.

His letters, arriving with exotic stamps, were written like novels, she said. She worked hard on her replies, awed by the standard he had set with his writing.

“I couldn’t just jot a note back to him,” she said. “I had to compose a good letter.” Her life was sheltered, and she was grateful for the glimpse at a larger world, as well as his kindness. “He made me want to be a better person,” said Olson, now 68.

He sent her a book about Vietnam, a doll in a silk tunic, and a Christmas card with a soldier silhouetted against the night sky, looking up at a bright star overhead.

“For someone who did not know anyone over there to be so kind, to a stranger — that’s heartwarming,” Felder, now 86, said this week. “That means a lot. That’s what life is all about.”

After a decade, the letters petered off. He was back home with his wife and children, now in Virginia serving as an associate judge on what was then known as the U.S. Army Court of Military Review. She had finished college and moved to New York City to launch her career as a buyer and product developer in the Garment District.

But more than 50 years after their first letters, she surprised him again. After a series of painful losses and a rare chance to reflect, she felt an urgent need to thank him. So, she wrote him a letter.

This fall, they finally met.

A soldier’s story

Col. Ned Felder was born in 1937 in Charleston. His mother was 16 when she had him, so young that he thought his grandparents were his mother and father until he was about 5. His mom married his stepfather, and moved with him and his brother into a single room they rented in an alley just off King Street. They had no running water, cooked on a gas-powered hot plate, and heated the room with a tin stove that got bright red when it was hot, burning his brother’s leg one day when he got too close.

It gave Felder a lifelong conviction that poverty is the best incentive to achieve success.

Some of the memorabilia collected by Vietnam War veteran Army Col. Ned Edward Felder.

Some of the memorabilia collected by Vietnam War veteran Army Col. Ned Edward Felder. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

He says he was shaped by his Gullah Geechee ancestors and his church. When children would walk to school, the pastor of one of the two Black churches they passed on the way would play a game with them. They would try to tap him, and the pastor, fast as a cobra, would snatch at their hands. If he caught one, he would hold it, and the child would have to kneel and say the Lord’s Prayer. The pastor and the children all enjoyed it — and prayed a lot.

In high school, Felder learned a trade, spending half the day in classes and half the day working for a tailor. He planned to join the military and had no thought of college. There was no way to pay for it. But a teacher urged him to apply for scholarships.

He was accepted at South Carolina State University and, with the help of two scholarships and $27.90 a month through the ROTC program, was able to afford it. It was the first time he was able to sleep in his own bed and take a shower. He made friends for life. And he had changed his trajectory.

He went to law school, also at S.C. State, a school created when South Carolina’s leaders refused to integrate the law school at the flagship university. There were seven students, five professors, one secretary, and one janitor — very different from the school where White people studied. But he appreciated the demands: With only two other classmates in his year, they were all constantly questioned by professors. There was nowhere to hide if one hadn’t done the work.

In 1961 he joined the Army. He went to Vietnam in 1966, leaving his wife and young children for the year. There he was assigned duties he considered too menial — a perennial issue in his career. One was urging soldiers to vote. That was when he learned that those who weren’t U.S. citizens couldn’t vote, even though they might well die for their country. He wrote to President Lyndon B. Johnson, extended his tour another year and was pleased when the law was amended.

It was a hallmark of his life, to turn a frustrating assignment into something important and lasting. The teacher who urged him to go to college had taught him that intelligence is measured by how well one adjusts to one’s situation. He was promoted to major.

That extra year, from 1967 to 1968, also brought him something else: A pen pal. He was delighted every time he got a letter from Kris Olson.

She told him about her grades (all As) and playing the bugle. He told her about his family, and about Vietnam. He didn’t write about the horrors of war, or things tearing their own country apart, such as the three Black students fatally shot by police and the more than 20 others who were wounded on the S.C. State campus in 1968 during a protest over segregation.

Sometimes he gave her advice: Study hard. Be safe. In Michigan, she felt the thrill of opening the mailbox and finding a letter and running inside to open it. She saved the envelopes, marked with their long journeys.

A pen pal’s story

Kris Olson was born in 1954 in East Grand Rapids, the daughter of an engineer for a furniture company and a homemaker. She was shy, an eager student, musical. She made clothes for her dolls, and joined the school band.

She wanted to learn more about the world, feeling confined by the suburbs of Grand Rapids. She knew about the war - everyone was talking about it, and admired the soldiers fighting overseas. As she got older and her friends in high school began getting drafted, she realized it was complicated.

Olson loved to sew, and majored in textiles at Michigan State. She graduated early and moved to New York.

For many years, she was busy with her career, enjoying the city and traveling often. She got married and took her husband’s name, Feeney. She had a son and a daughter. Her husband was a carpenter, and she switched her career to real estate.

Then life got harder. Her mother died. Her father developed Parkinson’s disease and moved in with them for almost a decade. Her husband had a series of medical crises and was critically ill for several years. They couldn’t possibly pay all the medical bills. The recession hit, and they moved to Texas to save money. She worked two jobs.

Her father died. Her husband died. Last year, she lost her 27-year-old son to fentanyl poisoning.

Suddenly, it seemed important to find Col. Ned Felder again. She had known him, she realized, longer than almost anyone in her life.

“He was such an important part of my life,” she said, “and I never got a chance to tell him that.”

Felder sent a birthday card to Kris Olson, now Kris Feeney, in 1977 and enclosed this letter and photograph.

Felder sent a birthday card to Kris Olson, now Kris Feeney, in 1977 and enclosed this letter and photograph. (Family photo)

She had thought of him often over the years, showing friends the letters he had sent, looking him up sometimes to admire his latest accomplishments. “It always meant something to me,” she said, that someone had taken this trouble to write to her.

“It was just a kindness - just generosity. At many times in my life when I had a lot of difficult things to get through myself, it was just good to reflect on a person like that, who cared enough to do things like that,” Feeney said.

“He sets a pretty good example of how to live a good life. Be respected and be respectful. Appreciate things.

“I look for all the good I can find now.”

A reunion

When he received her letter at his home in Burke, Va., Felder said, “I was so happy! So happy. This one is more meaningful than any of the others,” he had received from her.

Over the years, he had often thought about the little girl who wrote to him in Vietnam and wondered where she was.

In her letter, she thanked him. And she told him she had moved to South Carolina and would love to see him if he was visiting family in Charleston or college friends in Orangeburg.

Felder, who had recently organized a gathering for his high school class - for both the graduates of the Black high school he attended and two White high schools - invited her to S.C. State on Veterans Day. “If I had not been in the military, I would not have met Kris,” he said.

Everything was choreographed to make her feel special, Feeney said. A car whisked her to campus, where they watched the football game from the president’s box. He brought his oldest son. He was going to wear his dress uniform, he told her, and joked that she should wear her Camp Fire uniform.

When she saw him, she gasped and covered her face.

“It was surreal, like the space-time continuum shifted,” she said. “Someone that was 10,000 miles away and then all of a sudden in the same room, physically right there.”

They immediately hugged. And hugged again.

He was telling himself, “’You’re a colonel. You don’t cry. You’re a tough guy, don’t let them see you cry.’”

Looking back on it from his neat-as-a-pin home, he was amazed that two people of such different ages and backgrounds could be so happy to see each other for the first time, and be so comfortable together.

“It’s divine intervention,” he said.

And also, an example: “If we can do it, everyone can do it.”

They plan to get together again soon. He’s eager to meet her daughter, and introduce her to his other children. She has a lot of questions she wishes she had asked. She appreciates his soft laugh and his capacity for joy. There’s so much they haven’t told each other.

“She’ll become a family member,” he said.

In the meantime, she’s choosing a card. A good one, to write him a thank-you note.

“There’s nothing like mail,” she said.

Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.

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