Time flies when you’re next to one you love

It was a love story that started when he sat down beside her at an early-risers’ Bible study at a church camp 55 years ago. Elmer Schmidt had been preparing to go to the mission field in a faraway land, but first, he had some business to take care of. The Canadian national wanted to find his aunt and uncle in central Nebraska, so he hopped a bus and headed to the plains. He met up with the family just in time to help them with the wheat harvest.

On his last Sunday on the farm, his uncle suggested to the handsome 30-year-old that he join a group of young people headed to Camp Maranatha for a Back to the Bible broadcast. He obliged.

Meanwhile, a lovely 29-year-old Darlene Meierhenry had her own plans. The girl who grew up on a farm in Norfolk was on her way to watch a Bible quiz showdown — she had been counseling the team — when she rolled her car into a ditch. She was too shaken up to complete her trip, so she stopped at Camp Maranatha instead.

And that was when Elmer laid eyes on her, “my sweetheart,” as he calls her.

They spotted each other on Sunday.

Monday morning, Elmer headed to a before-breakfast Bible study.

“I’m always an early guy. But somebody beat me into the tabernacle — a young kid who did all the reel-to-reels for the broadcast,” Elmer said. “The third one coming into the tabernacle that morning was the one that I married.”

The boy was one of Darlene’s former students.

“Good morning, Miss Meierhenry,” the boy said.

Did Elmer hear that right? Did he say miss?

“I had him repeat it to me slowly. Then I said, ‘What’s her first name?’ Then I said, ‘I’m going to excuse myself and go meet her.’ ”

Darlene was sitting alone with her Bible on her lap.

Elmer asked if he could sit beside her. She said yes.

“I’ve always made the comment that I’m still sitting there,” the 85-year-old said.

Or at least, he was, until last week, Darlene took her last breath in their Hastings home at age 84. He was sitting there then, too.

He knew the time had come. Her health and her memory had failed. She wanted to go. And so he took the bedroom door off its hinges and scooted his old rocker next to her bed.

“I sat in it beside her and had my hand on her,” he said. He prayed for her for five or 10 minutes. Suddenly, she turned on her side.

“She took a big puff of breath and that was it,” he said. “The nurse said, ‘She’s gone.’ I said, ‘She isn’t gone. She’s home.’ ”

Sunday, in the company of six children and their spouses, he plans to celebrate her homecoming and to remember their full and happy life together — a life he recalls in vivid detail.

After their initial meeting at the camp in 1957, Elmer and Darlene spent the week together, getting to know each other. Gabbing. That’s what Elmer likes to do, and Darlene was good at it.

He told her of his missionary plans, and it didn’t scare her away. She’d always thought she wouldn’t mind being a missionary. And when they went their separate ways at the end of the week, they wrote to each other.

That’s how Elmer proposed, by letter. On the advice of a friend, he bought a heartshaped locket with red rhinestones from a costume jewelry shop, tucked a tiny picture of himself inside the locket and mailed it to her, along with his proposal.

A year later they were married and traveling to New Guinea. They were among the first Christian missionaries to that country, and together they did what they were good at: gabbing, spreading the Gospel among the tribes there.

Their first daughter, Ruth, was born in New Guinea. When Darlene became pregnant again — this time with twins — the family of three returned to Nebraska before the boys’ birth. They raised their children on an acreage near Central City and Elmer made a living as a salesman for Old Jewel Tea Co. of Chicago.

Elmer can’t believe how the years have flown by. “Yesterday we were married. Time has just moved so fast,” he said. “We were so much in love with each other.”

Now, he is happy she is home. She was chilly all her life, he jokes, and now he knows she’s not. She won’t struggle with her memory or her health. But he knows it will be lonely at times.

“When I look beside me, there’s nobody sitting there. When I’m riding in the car, there’s nobody sitting there.”

For 55 years they sat next to each other. Someday, he says, they’ll sit side by side again.

Amy Palser

Amy Palser writes personal stories readers can relate to: tales of family and friends, of childhood and rites of passage, of fantastic people and ordinary things. Her column appears each Saturday. She is the Tribune's managing editor.

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