His eyes are red-rimmed. He hasn’t had a full night’s sleep in months. Yet Michael Walsten, 40, of Eden Prairie, Minn., wouldn’t have it any other way. He is a man fulfilled.
Three months ago, moved by the new spirit of glasnost while watching TV news, Walsten wrote to 32 Eastern bloc media outlets offering to find U.S. pen pals for their recently liberated readers. The response was an immediate avalanche of mail. Walsten has received more than 7,000 letters—they arrive at a rate of more than 100 a day—from Hungary, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and the U.S.S.R., and 500 more from interested Americans. “I haven’t worked at my other job [as a producer of audio training tapes] since the letters started coming in,” says Walsten, who is divorced and the father of a 6-year-old son. “I read till 2 or 3 in the morning and then get up at 5 and start again. I’m so excited, I lose track of time.” Many envelopes are Scotch-taped so the recipient will know if the secret police have been snooping. “Old habits die hard,” says Walsten. Most letters are written in good English, and some are even poetic. “I send you as much friendship as possible in a little letter,” writes a Polish government worker.
Walsten’s pen pals behind the collapsing Iron Curtain desire everything from simple friendship to complex business enterprises to romance, and some of the 400 matches he has arranged seem perfect: He has put together Rich Gagliardi, a New Jersey comedian, with Sandor Kovasznai, a Hungarian who describes his family as “hospitable and liking to laugh,” and matched a Houston medical school professor with a Polish physicist who wants to attend U.S. med school.
Walsten (whose address is World Contacts Network, 14370 Fairway Drive, Eden Prairie, Minn. 55344) is applying for grants and hopes to start drawing a salary soon. Yet already he’s enjoying one fringe benefit: He has found three correspondents for himself. “For someone who never had a pen pal,” he says happily, “this is unbelievable. I’m helping people make history.”