Minnesota couple rekindles romance 70 years after first date
ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — Just when you think the world is a little too jaded, and maybe even the holidays have become a chore, along come Betty Fiek-Johnson and her husband, Jerry Johnson.
Theirs is a love story, to be sure, but it’s also a story of renewal, of new beginnings, of compromise and of humor.
Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, was their wedding anniversary. Their first anniversary — and it came 70 years after their first date.
Betty and Jerry met as students at the University of Minnesota in 1947. Neither one remembers the specifics of that meeting, just, “we saw each other, I guess” — maybe in the dining room — “and started dating,” Betty said.
She was a nursing student; Jerry, a self-described farm boy, was in the agricultural program.
They dated for more than two years, but the relationship ended in 1949.
“She told me she didn’t want to be a farm wife,” Jerry said.
“We just kind of slid out” of the relationship, Betty said.
“Then slid back in,” they said in unison.
But we’re getting ahead of the story.
In February 1950, Jerry married Hazel Knox. Eight months later, Betty married Harlen Fiek.
The next year, Jerry and Betty both were asked to be attendants at the wedding of mutual friends.
Hazel and Harlen sat together at that wedding, Jerry said, as he and Betty stood at the altar with their friends.
From then on, the Johnsons and the Fieks saw each other periodically — every 10 or 15 years — at the anniversary parties of those mutual friends.
And life went on.
Betty and Harlen eventually settled in Northeast Rochester, where she worked as a nurse. They raised four children.
Jerry and Hazel lived on the family farm near Norseland, north of Mankato, raising crops, dairy cattle and five children.
“The only time we ever saw each other was at those wedding anniversaries,” Jerry said of the Fieks.
“We were acquaintances,” Betty said; certainly, she smiled, they never exchanged Christmas cards.
Harlen Fiek died in 2010 after nearly 60 years of marriage; Hazel Johnson spent her final years in a nursing home and died in 2016, more than 66 years after she and Jerry were married.
In addition to her grief, Betty was worried: “I tried so hard not to be a burden” to her children.
Life took on a new normal, and there was something to look forward to: Those friends of theirs would be celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary in June.
Betty attended the party with her daughter, Char Burkhard, of Rochester.
Jerry arrived alone.
“I saw Betty and Char sitting at a table, and I thought, ‘I’d better go over and talk to her,’” he said. “I always felt like I’d dropped her like a hot potato” when they broke up in 1949.
Betty laughed at that.
“No, I never thought that,” she said. “I just didn’t think it was going anywhere. If we were meant to be together, we would be — and we just never did.”
Over cake and coffee, Jerry asked if he could visit her sometime, and Betty agreed. They made tentative plans as they left the anniversary party.
“On the way home, we were talking,” Burkhard said, “and Mom said, ‘If he comes to Rochester .,’ and I said, ‘Oh, there’s no doubt he’s coming.’ I knew he would.”
The two dipped a toe back into the relationship waters in August 2016.
“I was a lot more ready than she was,” Jerry said. “I had the same old feelings that I’d had years ago.”
He drove to Rochester, where Betty made them dinner (pork chops, they said), then took him to her favorite park.
There were more than a few laughs as the two figured out how to answer Jerry’s question: What do 88-year-olds do on a date? — though the stories are strictly “off the record,” Betty said.
“She’s always been young,” her daughter said, “but I didn’t even give a thought to her dating at 83 after our dad died. Not that I minded; I just didn’t think about it.
“She never looked or acted her age, but now I see that spark back in her,” Burkhard said. “To hear them reminisce about their memories — I think it’s brought the youth back. Anybody who makes her happy is OK with me.”
The courtship included long telephone conversations twice a day, because Jerry still lived on the farm near Norseland, and Betty still lived in her Rochester home.
There was definitely a learning curve, Betty said, “but we’re just having a ball. It’s good, but it’s different. You have to find your own way.”
For the two octogenarians, the way led to yet another wedding in a story already full of important ones.
“My son said, ‘Good night, Mom, if you guys want to see each other more, you should just get married,’” Betty said.
And they should do it soon, the couple agreed, “because, you know,” she laughed.
So about four months after that second first date, the two “kind of eloped” on Dec. 24, 2016.
“We did it quietly because we thought people would think we were crazy,” Betty said.
The newlyweds, who said they “haven’t counted up all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren yet,” honeymooned in Alaska.
“Then we had to figure out what we were going to do,” Jerry said, “because we had such deep roots” in their respective lives — including their homes.
That’s where the art of compromise comes in, the couple said last month, as they celebrated Betty’s 90th birthday in Rochester.
It was part of the rotation they employ: two weeks at the house Betty’s lived in for 50 years, then a 103-mile drive to spend two weeks at the farm that’s been in Jerry’s family since before Minnesota was a state.
Despite her avowal 70 years ago not to be a farm wife, Betty — who grew up on a farm — has come full circle.
“I’m living on a farm again,” she smiled. “I love it. I can see forever, and that really brought it home for me: seeing the stars, the moon; I love the open spaces.”
The biggest concern is a simple one: remembering what food is at which house, Betty said, “because we have everything we need; God has been good to us.”
“The only thing we don’t agree on now is politics,” she laughed, “and we just don’t talk about it.”
Information from: Post-Bulletin, http://www.postbulletin.com