Saratoga Reads book pick stirs memories of wartime

When Marion Renning was 11, she started writing a little girl her same age in England in 1939, the y

When Marion Renning was 11, she started writing a little girl her same age in England in 1939, the year that nation went to war with Nazi Germany. That postal relationship lasted nearly 30 years.

“We wrote, we never missed, we wrote constantly,” Renning said.

“She didn’t write about politics or the war,” Renning said about her pen pal, Beryl Archer, who lived in Stanmore, Middlesex, outside of London.

“We wrote about what we did,” Renning said. “She wrote a little bit about the shortages [of various foods and other items during World War II].”

“She talked about the shortages, transportation problems, but always with a stiff upper lip,” Renning said. “She was always very upbeat, never complained.”

Renning and her friend Claire Olds, a former dean of students at Skidmore College who knitted scarves for Royal Air Force pilots during the war, will participate in a special program later this month relating their World War II experiences to the best-selling book, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society,” written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

Renning and Olds met a decade ago at the Academy of Lifelong Learning in Saratoga Springs. They remain students and teachers at the academy, which is associated with Empire State College.

The book, which is the Saratoga Reads community book to read for 2010, is a fictional story, told mainly through letters, about a book club on the island of Guernsey that met during World War II after the Nazis occupied the small island in the English Channel between England and France.

Renning loved the book. It reminded her of her special pen pal who she finally met in 1964 when she visited London.

Renning said Beryl Archer loved to travel to London as a girl to watch American movies.

“She was absolutely bananas about anything American,” Renning said about her pen pal.

“I met her in 1964, we were in our mid-30s then, but her hair was snow white,” Renning remembers.

Both Renning and Archer started their adult lives as secretaries, but Renning would end up an advertising executive in New York City. Archer died of cancer in 1967.

Renning continues to operate a one-woman editorial company in Saratoga Springs, called Puffin Editorial, and has a Web site for seniors at

Olds didn’t have a pen pal from England, but her Girl Scout Troop in Manchester, Conn., adopted a Girl Guides troop in Manchester, England, during the war. Olds also joined her neighbors in knitting long blue and gray scarves for Royal Air Force pilots as part of the Bundles for Britain effort, a program started by a New York City socialite that focused on producing and shipping needed supplies to England.

In 1947, two years after World War II ended, Olds and members of her scout troop went to England, and camped out with their Girl Guides troop on the outskirts of Manchester.

At that time Olds was 21 years old and one of the co-leaders of the group.

“They had the tents, they had the gear,” Olds said about the Girl Guides, which is the English version of the Girl Scouts in the United States.

“We camped with them and taught them American Girl Scout songs,” Olds said.

Olds said World War II was a “serious time” in her life.

“We were serious kids,” she said.

Olds said she took great pride in knitting the scarves for English pilots. A neighbor’s family had a son serving with the Army Air Corps in England.

“My brother was in the Navy during World War II,” she said. “My father was in the Navy during World War 1.”

The Saratoga Vital Aging Network, in cooperation with Saratoga Reads, will host a discussion of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society” book at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Spring Street Gallery at 110 Spring St. in Saratoga Springs.

The program is open to everyone, but SVAN is encouraging participation by people who lived through World War II and supported the British War Relief Society with Bundles for Britain, WWII veterans, and people who had British pen pals or British war brides.

SVAN is an organization in the community for people 55 years old and older and lists as its purpose to promote self-determination, civic engagement and personal growth for people as they age, through education and advocacy.

For more information about the network see the Web site:

Reach Gazette reporter Lee Coleman at 587-1780 or at [email protected].

Categories: Schenectady County

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