They met when she was a senior in college; he was two years younger in his first year at the Coast Guard Academy. In the six weeks since Pearl Harbor the first-classmen (seniors) had been graduated and sent off to their duty assignments, and he and his class had been promoted to third-classmen (sophomores).
They met at a square dance. She went on a lark — she had never square danced before, and by chance she was paired off with him — he had been a competition dancer in high school. In her words, “he pulled me around the floor and made me look good.”
At the end of the night, he invited her to go ice skating the next day. Only thing was … he had forgotten her name, and was too embarrassed to ask. He thought that if he saw the list of girls in her dorm he would be able to pick her out … but this was the early ’40s, and the dragon lady at the door wasn’t about to give him the list. He had to admit his error; all the girls in the dorm got to giggle at his embarrassment, but she forgave him,, and the date proved a success.
There was a big formal dance coming up at the Academy, and she held her breath, hoping for an invitation. It never came. She didn’t know that he had already invited another girl to the dance; all she knew was that she was waiting for a phone call that never came. But at the end of the weekend, he put that other girl on the train to go home, called her at her dorm, and from then on, to quote her, she “never had to worry about any competition.”
That was January in 1942. They had to wait for his graduation 30 months later to marry. Meanwhile, she refused to marry him until she had met his family, and she refused to travel with him until she was engaged. So, with his ring on her finger, they took the train (unchaperoned! horrors!) to Denver in the summer of 1943. All must have gone well during that meeting, because they were married the day after his graduation in June 1944; two days after D-Day and about three weeks before he shipped out to the Mediterranean.
Thirty years, three children, and 12 duty assignments later, he retired. His duty assignments had taken them across the country from east to west and back again in six cross-country transfers. Along the way they gave their children an introduction to some of the most interesting cities in the nation — San Francisco, Washington DC, Honolulu, New Orleans — as well as most of the iconic national parks and American history-lands.
There had been sickness as well as health — she had two miscarriages and almost died of hepatitis when she was still in her 30s. There were the separations demanded by his sea duty. But if there were any disagreements or even differences of opinion, they must have been dealt with behind closed doors. Certainly, there was never any glimpse of anything other than total agreement and devotion to one another.
After retirement they returned to Denver, where they kept house for his aging mother, acquired a dachshund, and he grew a beard. He took a job as executive director of the boys’ youth group he had grown up in 35 years earlier, and he enjoyed the non-profit involvement so much that he made a second career as a non-profit volunteer. He went up the ranks to the national board of The Retired Officers Association, and was active in multiple other military, patriotic and genealogical organizations.
Eventually, drawn by proximity to grandchildren and the retired military community that surrounds Washington, they moved to a retirement home in McLean, VA.
This is where they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, then their 60th, and then their 65th anniversary. “We need to start celebrating every five years instead of 10,” she explained. In fact, 25 years on, they were proudly the oldest-tenured couple in their retirement community. They had practically acquired icon status — who wouldn’t know the couple who predated everyone else, who played pool volleyball each week and knew everyone’s name, who attended every social event, whose grandchildren — and later great-grandchild — showed up regularly for Sunday dinner?
Two years ago they walked a 5K for Wounded Warriors. It probably wasn’t so much a “walk” as an “amble,” but at ages 89 and 91, speed isn’t the point. Last year his arthritis had degenerated to the point that those kind of activities were no longer possible, and this year saw a series of health setbacks. Even so, they celebrated their 70th anniversary with a party for 200, and danced at a party a few weeks later. Nothing as energetic as a square dance, but he had her up and proved that he still knew how to waltz.
But it had to come to an end sometime. And two weeks prior to his Academy class’ 70th Homecoming, his heart gave out. He had been planning his class reunion for over a year, but it was not to be. By the time reunion came he had transitioned to hospice, and one week later he died. He was mentally alert and involved in the decision-making to the end, and she was with him at his bedside when he breathed his last.
He died two days before her 94th birthday, leaving her alone for the first time in almost 73 years, counting from that first dance when he taught her the steps and “made [her] look good.” Together, they shared a lifetime. Together, they made each other — and themselves — look good. Together, they raised a family on the virtues of honor and responsibility. Together, they left a legacy of love.