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Little League Pen Pals Nurture Enduring International Friendship

Jo, Rob and Phil Bowler, left to right, stand on the South Lawn of the White House in this 1979 photo. The Bowlers were part of a ceremony hosted President George H.W. Bush, celebrating Little League International chartering leagues in Europe.

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (Sept. 9, 2005) – United States Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Bowler and Tvlukasz Zielinski of Poland had never met before this summer, yet they share a unique bond that was forged with nothing more than a Little League baseball.

In August, at the Senior Little League Softball World Series, in Lower Sussex, Del., Rob and Luke shook hands for the first time after years of building a friendship that has Little League as its cornerstone.

On July 7, 1989, during a ceremony hosted by President George H.W. Bush at the White House, and celebrating the 50th anniversary of Little League Baseball, Rob, then a 9-year-old player in the Vienna (Va.) Little League, signed a baseball with his name and address. That ball was among dozens signed by Little Leaguers in attendance that day that were collected, and distributed three days later during a reception in Warsaw, Poland at the American Ambassador's residence, celebrating the beginning of that country’s affiliation with Little League Baseball and Softball.

After a few weeks had passed, Rob received a letter from Luke, who had been presented the ball at the Ambassador’s reception. At that point the two Little Leaguers struck up a friendship that remains strong 16 years later.

“When I received that first letter from Luke, I wrote back right away,” Rob, who has served in the Middle East and Southwest Asia during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, said. “At the time I was nine years old, so I returned the letter immediately. That was big-time excitement.”

Rob, now 25, was a Little Leaguer until the age of 12, and Luke played Little League in Brzeg, a town in the Southern region of Poland. Each year since, the two have shared baseball stories, and swapped Christmas gifts and Easter cards.

“When we received the first letter I told Rob he had to write back,” Jo Bowler, Rob’s mother, said. “I felt this was a terrific opportunity for Rob.”

Mrs. Bowler and her husband, Phil, were excited when the first letter arrived, and since then it has been such a wonderful experience, because, “both kids were phenomenal, and have grown into fine young men,” Mrs. Bowler said.

The Bowlers were local league volunteers during their son’s years in the Little League program. Rob, who enlisted in the Air Force in November 2000, expects that once his military service is finished he too would like to volunteer his time to Little League.

In recent years, the written letters have been replaced by the convenience of e-mail.

“We could go months without hearing from him, and months would go by before he would hear from us, but we never felt like this would stop,” Mrs. Bowler said.

Luke, 26, a school teacher in Brzeg, is a Little League volunteer and a coach in Poland with the Brzeg Little League senior softball team which won the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) Region championship. Luke and the EMEA Region champions were in the United States, Aug. 7-13, and went 0-3 in World Series tournament play.

Despite not winning a game in the Senior League Softball World Series, Luke’s disappointment was fleeting as members of both families made their introductions. Luke said in a recent e-mail he had the fateful baseball and planned to bring it with him.

In the correspondence sent by Luke days before leaving for the United States, Mrs. Bowler said Luke wrote, “It is so exciting that for 16 years we have been together only by letters. Our friendship is so simple and so beautiful it will be wonderful if you, Phil, Rob and the rest of your family can come and meet in person with me.”

As fate would have it, Rob originally thought he would not be able to receive leave from his current assignment at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland during the time Luke would be in Delaware. In the end, Rob’s schedule allowed the two pen pals to finally meet.

“It was incredible,” Rob said. “I just found out a couple of weeks ago that this was all going to go down. Because my military schedule is set in stone I had to work some magic to get over here.”

Staff Sgt. Bowler is a weather forecaster, who works rotating 12-hour shifts. Among his duties is reporting weather and atmospheric conditions to military aircraft in Andrews AFB airspace, including Air Force One and Air Force Two.

Years ago, Luke was in the United States on a scholastic tour, but was unable to meet up with the Bowlers because the letter he had written before leaving on the trip, arrived three weeks after he had returned to Poland.

Now that the long-anticipated meeting became a reality, Rob no longer has to wonder what to expect.

“We established a friendship even though we had never met,” Rob said. “I thought when we finally met we’d exchange a firm handshake, and talk about baseball and other things that 25-year-old guys talk about. That’s exactly what we did.”

Following his long-awaited formal introduction to the Bowler family, Luke said, “It’s nice to have friends like Rob, Jo and Phil. This (baseball) has helped me get new friends from America. Our friendship will be long, and never-ending.”

Mrs. Bowler said that after all the years of exchanging letters and sharing the stories of their lives, Rob and Luke are their own extended family.

Tvlukasz Zielinski, left, and Rob Bowler display the baseball bearing Rob’s name and address. Luke has kept the baseball for 16 years and through that time the former Little Leaguers have continued to stay in touch through letters and e-mail.

Rob Bowler, left, and Tvlukasz Zielinski became pen pals when Rob signed a baseball during a ceremony at the White House. Luke received during a ceremony in Warsaw, Poland celebrating the first Little League International chartering programs in Europe. Rob traveled from Maryland to Delaware to meet Luke for the first time. The two have been pen pals for 16 years.

Phil Bowler, left, Tvlukasz Zielinski of Poland, Joe Bowler and Rob Bowler have been friends for 16 years, but met in person for the first time at this year’s Senior League Softball World Series, in Lower Sussex, Del. “Luke” was a coach with the team from Brzeg, Poland that won the Europe, Middle East and Africa Region championship and played in the Senior League Softball World Series.