Omaha native Pat Fortune heard about the death last week of Dear Abby in a text from his wife, Patty — who added a sad-face symbol.
To the Fortunes, Abby was especially dear.
Without her, in fact, they wouldn't have met — let alone enjoy their three sons and a 20-year marriage.
Pat, who grew up in Omaha, graduated in 1984 from Creighton Prep and in 1988 from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he had completed ROTC. He joined the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and took part in Operation Desert Storm in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
In her nationally syndicated advice column, Abby encouraged people to write to military personnel through Operation Dear Abby, as she had done during the Vietnam War.
Patty Treacy, daughter of a Milwaukee dentist and his wife, wrote a letter at Thanksgiving 1990 to “Any Service Person.”
Pat, a lieutenant serving that December near the Iraq-Saudi border, had looked for a letter from Nebraska. Instead he saw one from Wisconsin, written in a female hand, but his sergeant was already reading it.
Lt. Fortune pulled rank. “I stole it from the sergeant.”
No picture was included, but the letter was engaging. He wrote back. Patty responded.
“I like to write, and I support the military,” she said this week. “I just felt it was my American duty to write him back and show my support for what he was going through.”
This was before emails were common, so they wrote the old-fashioned way — by hand. They could barely believe all of their similarities.
Pat eventually returned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and they spoke often by phone. Nine months after that first letter, they arranged to meet in Cincinnati, midway between Wisconsin and North Carolina.
At first sight, there weren't exactly sparks.
“It was more a relief that we finally had met,” Pat said. “It was almost like a blind date with someone you know.”
“I'd never been so nervous,” red-haired Patty said. “It took a while to get over the awkwardness.”
But they clicked in person as they had in letters and on the phone.
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Two months later, on Nov. 12, 1991, a letter from Patty to Dear Abby was printed in The World-Herald and more than a thousand other newspapers. She congratulated the advice columnist for her letter-writing campaign and told about the relationship she had struck up with Lt. Patrick E. Fortune.
“We soon learned that we had a lot in common,” Patty wrote in her letter, which was read by millions. “His name is Patrick, my name is Patty; he's Irish-Catholic, I'm Irish-Catholic; he's one of seven kids, I'm one of seven kids. He went to an all-boys Catholic school, I went to an all-girls Catholic school; we both have dreamed of biking through Ireland. We also share many of the same beliefs about God, family and values.”
She called it “the saga of Pat and Patty,” and wrote that when Pat left the military, he intended to move to Milwaukee “and make spoiling me a full-time job.”
When they married in Milwaukee on Dec. 19, 1992, Abby phoned congratulations to the home of Patty's family. The couple never again heard from Abby — pen name Abigail Van Buren, real name Pauline Friedman Phillips — but they never forgot her. How could they?
Said Patty: “I wouldn't be standing in my kitchen right now looking at my husband and three sons if it wasn't for her.”
The boys are Kevin, 18, Andrew, 16, and Nathaniel, 12. Pat is a police lieutenant and Patty is a corporate recruiter.
Over the years the family has visited Omaha often to see relatives, including Pat's parents, Tom and Lucile Fortune.
Pat and Patty marvel at the improbability of their many similarities. Fate and karma seemingly had intervened and put that first letter in Pat's hand.
“It's all a little too coincidental,” Patty said. “There's got to be a reason he stole my letter from the sergeant.”
For their 10th anniversary, they fulfilled their dream of visiting Ireland. And, yes, they still have their letters.
“She holds them over my head,” Pat joshed. “She brings them out and reads them if I don't behave.”
When Pat says it's true that Patty is very spoiled, she counters: “I want to go on record that he does not spoil me.”
In lasting relationships, fate almost always has played a part — humor, too. Pat, it turned out, wasn't just “any service person.” And Patty wasn't just any letter-writer doing her “American duty.”
The Fortunes, to say the least, feel most fortunate.
“I'm pretty sure I won't ever win the lottery,” Pat said. “I already won it once.”
Luck that they both attribute to their dear Dear Abby.
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