Tying the knot 6 decades after she returned his class ring - Omaha.com
Published Monday, June 10, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 1:50 pm
Love comes full circle
Tying the knot 6 decades after she returned his class ring

For more than 50 years, the gold class ring rested in a small wooden box with cuff links and tie clips.

Leonard Pithan would look at the ring sometimes, and think of her.

She was Mary Kluver, the girl who wore the ring when she and Leonard were each other's first loves, when going steady meant something, and holding hands sent flutters.

That was years ago in the small western Iowa town of Charter Oak, where they lived and attended high school together in the 1940s, growing so close they dreamed of the four children they would have someday, and the names they would give them.

But like so many high school romances, theirs would fade, with Mary returning the ring after Leonard graduated and joined the Air Force, and she went off to nursing school.

Each eventually married another, and raised families.

So the gold ring sat in that box for decades, until the day Leonard gently picked it up, held it in his hand, and knew it was time for Mary to wear it once again.

* * *

On a July day in 1948, by a cool Iowa lake, they noticed each other for the first time.

Mary was 13 and Leonard was 16, and they were vacationing with their families at Lake Okoboji.

Mary had just finished swimming, and was brushing her hair when she glanced out the cabin window and spotted a boy walking near the beach. She thought he looked familiar, and asked her dad who he was.

It was Leonard, and it turned out her dad and his dad were friends, with their families attending the same Lutheran church in Charter Oak.

That afternoon their families sat by the lake and sipped iced tea. Mary and Leonard didn't speak a word to each other as their parents chatted, but they would catch each other's eyes, then quickly look away.

Leonard was a handsome kid with dark, wavy hair — a farmer's son who drove tractors, milked cows, fed hogs and loved hunting pheasants and rabbits.

He played forward and guard on his high school basketball team, and as a baseball shortstop was known for his sling-shot arm.

Mary had long, thick dark hair and smooth skin. She played guard on the girls basketball team, rarely missing a free throw. She played trombone, acted in school plays and sang in the choir.

In the fall of 1948, Mary started her freshman year at Charter Oak High, where Leonard was a junior, and spotted each other in the hallway.

They chatted about their classes, teachers and high school sports, and the words flowed for Mary and Leonard. No long pauses, no worrying about what they'd say next.

Leonard asked her parents if he could ask her out. They gave the OK, but only if the teens double-dated.

Their first night out, Leonard picked her up in his black 1929 Dodge sedan with red-spoked wheels, and they drove with another couple to nearby Denison, Iowa, to catch a movie.

A romance soon unfolded, with Mary and Leonard going on picnics, playing canasta with friends and shooting baskets together at the schoolyard.

Mary's father owned a restaurant and pool hall, and they'd stop for a Coke and play the jukebox.

They had a favorite song, and it became “their” song, “My Foolish Heart,” a tune from a movie of the same name released in 1949.

The song, a slow ballad covered by greats like Frank Sinatra, carried the words:

“For this time, it isn't fascination,

Or a dream that will fade and fall apart,

It's love, this time it's love, my foolish heart.”

At the start of his senior year, Leonard asked Mary to go steady, and gave her his gold class ring, embossed with his graduation year, 1950, and a silhouette of Charter Oak High. He paid $18 for it.

Mary wrapped tape around the ring so it fit snugly on her finger, and loved showing it to her friends.

Mary and Leonard talked about marrying, the kids they would have, and the names they would pick: David, Jonathan, Rebecca and Rachel.

But there would be no wedding. In spring 1950 Leonard graduated, and less than a year later enlisted in the Air Force, heading to Colorado for training, while Mary finished high school.

He and Mary wrote letters, talked on the phone and saw each other when he was in Charter Oak on leave.

Their lives, though, were headed in different directions, and by the end of Mary's junior year she was dating other boys.

Mary knew she couldn't keep the ring because their romance, the one that began on a summer day at Lake Okoboji, had ended.

She mailed it to Leonard's parents, asking them to return it to him.

Mary graduated from high school in 1952, and enrolled at the University of Iowa in Iowa City to study nursing.

Leonard trained as gunner in the Air Force, but dreamed of flying. When his enlistment ended in 1954, he attended flight school and became a pilot for a charter service in Des Moines, then flew for an airline in Texas.

In 1956, when Mary was finishing nursing school, Leonard called from Texas, told her he missed her, that he still loved her and wanted to marry her.

Leonard felt it was his last chance for a life with Mary, so he proposed over the phone.

She didn't know what to say. It had been six years, and she felt like she didn't even know him anymore.

Come to Iowa City, she told him, and they could talk about it. But Leonard couldn't get time off from the airline.

She told him she still cared for him but couldn't marry him.

Leonard was disappointed, but he understood.

Within a year, they would marry others, and Leonard placed the ring Mary had worn into that wooden jewelry box.

Mary met David Christensen, an Iowa native, while both were students at Iowa.

They married in 1957 and lived in Des Moines, eventually moving in 1967 to Omaha, where Mary worked as a nurse and she and her husband raised three children and ran a power washing business.

Leonard met Peggy Owen, who was from Ohio and worked as a stewardess for his airline. They married in 1957 and raised two children as they moved for Leonard's career to such places as Oklahoma, California and Japan.

He and his wife moved back to Charter Oak when he retired more than 25 years ago.

Mary and Leonard were blessed with long, happy marriages, but they also faced sadness.

Mary's husband was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 1997 and died that September, after 40 years of marriage.

Leonard's wife also had lung cancer, and she died in 2008. She and Leonard were married more than 50 years.

Mary and Leonard, the high school sweethearts, were now alone.

But their lives soon would join again.

* * *

Mary often made the three-hour round trip from Omaha to Charter Oak to visit her mother, and would bump into Leonard there.

They started going to lunch together, catching up.

They reminisced about their years in high school, but their conversations were about more than old memories. They bonded over the loss and the grief they experienced from losing spouses.

Mary and Leonard rediscovered how much they enjoyed being with each other, and started dating again.

Even though they were in their 70s at the time, they didn't sit around. They attended shows at the Omaha Community Playhouse, worked out together at the gym and watched Mary's grandkids play basketball.

Leonard had never forgotten the class ring Mary wore.

So two years ago, he pulled it from the box and told her they should go steady again. Mary placed the ring on her finger.

Last year at Christmastime, Leonard knew it was time to take another step, and he proposed. This time — decades since that first proposal — Mary said yes, and Leonard told her, “Mary Jean Kluver, I finally got you.”

Mary, who still works part time as a home health nurse, knows it may not seem practical, getting married at their ages. She is now 78, and he is 81. She has no idea how many years the Lord will give them, but both are healthy and look forward to many anniversaries.

“Old people (fall) in love again, too,” she said. “It's a rekindling.”

They're even planning a honeymoon, a trip to Branson, Mo., and Hot Springs, Ark.

Mary and Leonard, who will split their time between her house in Omaha and his in Charter Oak, planned the wedding and reception. Invitations went out to more than 100 family members and friends, some traveling from as far as Texas and California.

Mary's daughters and friends threw her a bachelorette party. One of Mary's best friends lives at an Omaha nursing home and hosted the party for her there — a celebration that included Jell-O shots and lively G-rated dancing by a couple of young guys who are family friends.

At the reception at the Doubletree Hotel in central Omaha, Mary and Leonard planned some dancing of their own to “their” song, “My Foolish Heart.”

Guests dined on a buffet of steak and chicken, and slices from a three-tiered white wedding cake.

On Saturday, Mary wore the class ring as she walked down the aisle for their wedding at Omaha's Presbyterian Church of the Master.

Dressed in a three-piece ivory suit with white lace, Mary carried two white roses and her mother's prayer book. Leonard wore a crisp white dress shirt and a dark tie and pants.

At the altar he slipped a shiny wedding ring onto Mary's finger. It was brimming with diamonds and sapphires.

But for her it will be no match for the gold class ring, the one still wrapped with tape to fit snugly, the one she knows she will never give back again.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1122, michael.oconnor@owh.com

Contact the writer: Michael O'Connor

michael.oconnor@owh.com    |   402-444-1122    |  

Michael is a general assignment reporter for the Living section, covering a mix of topics including human interest stories.

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