Gladys Hankerson was at her home in Delray Beach, Fla., about 20 years ago when she picked up the phone to call her sister. She didn’t realize that when she dialed, she mistakenly transposed two digits in the number.
Her sister, who lived in Somerset County, Md., had a 410 area code - but Hankerson, then 60, accidentally punched in 401 instead.
She reached Mike Moffitt, a Rhode Island resident who at the time was in his mid-20s. He took the call.
Hankerson hung up when she realized she dialed the wrong number but proceeded to call back multiple times, not knowing she was still confusing the area code. Moffitt, admittedly entertained by the ordeal, answered every time.
“She just kept saying, ‘Oh, I’m sorry sweetheart, wrong number,’ and hanging up,” Moffitt recalled. “I kind of chuckled at it.”
Eventually, the calls subsided, but the following week, Hankerson accidentally dialed Moffitt’s number yet again.
At that point, “I was like, we might as well get to know each other,” Moffitt said. “I asked her where she was from, and we just started talking.”
Quickly, he realized, “she was sweet, warm and polite.” Talking to Hankerson was “just nice, pleasant and easy,” he said.
Hankerson, now 80, felt the same way about Moffitt: “We talked about this, and we talked about that. We became friends from there.”
And so, an unlikely bond was born, and it has lasted for two decades.
“It just progressed over the years,” said Moffitt, adding that every few months, one of them calls the other to check in. “Every time you talk to her, you know it’s going to be a good conversation. It’s kind of like an old-school pen pal.”
“When you meet nice people, you can’t help yourself from reaching out to them,” said Hankerson, a mother of 10 children.
When Hankerson - who was born in South Carolina and moved to Florida when she was 5 - mistakenly called Moffitt, her life was in disarray. Her 30-year-old son had just died and she was going through a divorce. Her phone buddy, she said, served as an uplifting distraction.
Before long, she considered Moffitt a friend. The two were kind to each other, and they would regularly have “nice conversations,” she said.
Although their chats stayed mostly surface level, “when I’m talking to him, I can feel the love,” said Hankerson, who has worked as a housekeeper for the past 52 years.
“She would watch my weather, almost like my mom does,” Moffitt, now 46, quipped.
Sometimes Hankerson would simply call and say, “I see you have snow today.”
Their relationship deepened when, about 10 years ago, one of Hankerson’s sons contacted Moffitt to let him know that a family member had passed away. He swiftly sent flowers.
“I was like, ‘Wow, she thought to have someone call me,’ " Moffitt said. “It stopped me in my tracks.”
“Who would have thought in the world that I’m going to dial the wrong number and meet a loving friend?” Hankerson said.
The pair had never met in person and had no idea what the other one looked like, but they both knew “there’s this person out there that is always interested and thinking about me,” said Moffitt, who has a painting and gutter business.
Over their 20-year friendship, Moffitt moved through life, eventually getting married and having three daughters, all of whom are big fans of Moffitt and Hankerson’s longtime friendship.
“My three daughters would see my phone on the counter and say, ‘Florida Lady is calling,’ " Moffitt said. “They get a kick out of it.”
Hankerson’s sister, for her part, is grateful that her area code got repeatedly mixed up that day 20 years ago.
“It really is amazing,” said Josephine Green, 70, who still lives in Somerset County.”You don’t meet people like that every day. It is wonderful.”
Hankerson and Moffitt had talked about seeing each other in person at some point, but life always got in the way. This past Thanksgiving, though, when Moffitt and his family were in Florida visiting college campuses for his eldest daughter, he decided to surprise Hankerson at her home.
Moffitt got the address from Hankerson’s daughter, and when he realized he was only a few miles from her house, he decided “We have to do it, we’re going!”
On Nov. 24, he stopped at a Trader Joe’s grocery store to grab a bouquet of flowers and knocked on Hankerson’s front door. Moffitt decided not to call her in advance, he said, because “I didn’t want to be an imposition where she starts cleaning the house. I just decided I was going to take a chance and see how it goes.”
Fortunately for him, Hankerson was home - and beyond thrilled to see him.
“It’s Mike from Rhode Island,” he said when their eyes first met.
Hankerson was floored.
“I never thought I would have seen him,” she said. “He made my day.”
Hankerson was especially excited, she continued, because “that same week he was on my mind. I realized I hadn’t spoken to Mike in a while, and then he showed up.”
Moffitt was elated to finally meet Hankerson.
He snapped a selfie of them and posted it on Facebook, writing: “There are incredible people in this World that are a wrong number phone call away.” Thousands of comments and messages poured in, including from people who shared similarly heartwarming stories.
“It’s all about connection,” Moffitt said.
He and Hankerson are hoping to spend more time together and introduce their families to one another. In the meantime, though, they’ll carry on with their regular phone calls.
Their friendship was founded on a wrong number, but in the end, they said, it was the right number after all.
“You can become friends with strangers and learn to love them,” Hankerson said. “I think the world of him.”