Northern Ireland

The pen pals from America and Northern Ireland who fell in love

John and Sally Sue Bradley Image copyright SALLY SUE BRADLEY
Image caption The RNLI received a £59,000 donation from pen pals John and Sally Sue Bradley, who met through Mensa

Almost 4,000 miles and the Atlantic Ocean separate Dungannon in Northern Ireland and Atlanta, one of the biggest cities in the United States.

It's an unlikely distance to cross to find a soul mate, but not insurmountable, as Sally Sue Bradley, a nurse from the US, can attest.

Her relationship with her late husband John, a dairy farmer from County Tyrone, came to light recently when the couple made a $74,000 (£59,000) donation to two County Down lifeboat crews because of their admiration for the RNLI's life-saving work.

But their unlikely love story started decades beforehand, with the pair starting out as pen pals in the early 1990s, before becoming a couple and later a husband and wife who would be together until John's death earlier in July at the age of 81.

It was the most clever of cupid's arrows that first brought the couple into each other's orbit as pen pals - the high-intelligence society Mensa, of which both were members.

And when Sally Sue first met John, who was born in London but grew up in Dungannon, she knew he was different.

"I had never met the man in my life, but right there and then, I knew he was special," she told BBC News NI.

Image copyright SALLY SUE BRADLEY

This was 1995. Sally Sue was visiting Cork when John surprised her in person, unexpectedly arriving at her hotel.

She had told him she was going to the Republic of Ireland to research her family history.

"When I got to the hotel lobby in Cork, this man stands up and asks if I was Sally Sue. I said yes and asked him who he was. He said John Bradley," she said.

"I was shocked. I said: 'You live in Northern Ireland and what are you doing down in the Republic?'

"He said he knew I would need a car, so he took a week's vacation to come help me."


Sally Sue may have had her head turned by John's spontaneity, but she wasn't rushing into any life decisions. After John came to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics, he told Sally Sue she should marry him.

"I told him that his timing was off, because I was going to put him on a plane that afternoon back to Northern Ireland, so let me think about it," said Sally Sue.

"He sent me flowers, called me twice, and wrote me a letter every night."

A few months later, she accepted the proposal and they married in the States.

Image copyright Sally Sue Bradley
Image caption After a fire at John's family home in Dungannon, he rebuilt the property and was living there when he met Sally Sue

Over the years, the pair lived on both sides of the Atlantic, before settling in the city of LaGrange in Georgia - although they never settled for long, as the couple remained committed globetrotters, ticking off 46 countries and 30 US states off their list.

"We quit going out to eat and told all (10) of our kids we loved them, but no more presents," said Sally Sue.

"They were okay with that, so we would pick a place to see that had lots of history and go there."

'An incredible legacy'

But Northern Ireland remained close to both their hearts, not least Sally Sue's.

"The people in Northern Ireland are the nicest people in the world and I talked about them so much and encouraged people to visit so much that John said I should work for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board."

And the work of lifeboats in the UK was also a source of admiration for the couple.

With John's connections to both Northern Ireland and London, they decided to make a donation to both Bangor and Donaghadee RNLI crews as well as a $5,000 (£4,000) donation to the Tower RNLI crew in north London, who they visited in 2018.

Image caption Donaghadee RNLI, and its neighbouring Bangor unit, will benefit from the Bradley's donation

"In America, we have the Coast Guard which rescue people and ships who get in trouble on the high seas," John told the RNLI. "The US Coast Guard is fully paid for by the government, but the RNLI needs donations. We are pleased to give enough money so that equipment can be purchased."

Peter Irwin, Donaghadee RNLI's operations manager, said it was a "lovely story, albeit a poignant one now at John's recent death".

"To think the couple - who met as pen pals, married here but then moved to America but continued to share a passion for the RNLI and the charity's work - would think if us in this way and so generously, it's incredible."

Bangor RNLI's operations manager Kevin Byers said John had left "an incredible legacy".

It's a thought that gives Sally Sue some comfort.

"It was an honour to be John's wife," she said.

"John was the best man in the world and I will miss him greatly, but I cherish the time I had with him."

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