Mila Koumpilova, Published January 03 2010
Minnesota couple find love, renewed zest for life 50 years after first date
It had to be another lost lake country traveler looking for directions. The Grand Marquis came to a halt under an oak tree.
Striding toward her was Jerry Carlson, a man Gloria had barely seen for decades and never expected to see that July day in 2000. It had been more than 50 years since their fleeting courtship was cut short by youthful indecision and the pressures of high school. Then, their paths had veered in sharply divergent directions.
“When I saw him, I almost fainted,” Gloria recalls.
Gloria and Jerry, both 74, found their way back to each other just as loneliness and loss were closing in. For the duo, the following years affirmed some simple truths: the importance of taking a chance even when it seems too late, and the power of companionship to shake things up at any age.
“Our second date came 50 years later,” says Jerry, adding with his trademark self-deprecating humor, “It takes me a while.”
The year was 1949. Jerry and Gloria were freshmen at Frazee High School. It was a first date for both and a classic case of opposites attract.
Gloria was a country girl. Jerry, whose dad ran a service station in Frazee, was a town kid. Gloria was a self-described “jabberbox,” a pretty, petite bundle of spunk who didn’t think much of yodeling in front of the entire class at school dances. She and her sister had a guitar-and- accordion act that even landed some gigs in town.
A math and science whiz, Jerry was the quiet type, bashful despite his spot on the football team. He later told a former classmate, Don Grieser, the last day of his high school career was the happiest in his life.
“When Gloria and I first went together, I was very shy,” Jerry recalls. “I was scared stiff.”
After they had burgers in town, Gloria insisted on paying for her movie ticket.
Jerry never got around to asking her out again. For a time, Gloria hoped he would. In those days, girls didn’t ask boys out.
Then, life whisked them to places less than 200 miles – and light-years – apart. Jerry joined the Army, where he relayed messages in Morse code. Later, he worked as a land surveyor for the state Department of Natural Resources for more than 30 years, most of it spent on the road. He remained a bachelor.
Gloria married the summer after her graduation and settled down on husband Roy’s 500-acre family farm. She had four kids to raise and a dairy operation to help run. She stayed put.
As Huntington’s disease, an unrelenting degenerative illness, claimed more of Roy’s routines, Gloria took over farm chores. He died in 1999 at 65.
A few years earlier, Jerry had retired and moved back to the area from St. Paul. In the summer of 2000, he found out Frazee High was hosting an all-school reunion. Gloria, a perennial organizer of church and school events, was collecting the $10 for the reunion dinner.
Jerry was planning to send a check in the mail, but then he reconsidered. He drove out to her farm instead and, as he walked toward the stunned Gloria in her vegetable garden, he announced, “I have the money for the supper.”
Says Gloria, “He just about knocked my socks off.”
New chance at romance
Jerry and Gloria didn’t go on their “second date” until 2001, a couple of years shy of their 50th high school reunion. They went to a nostalgia-tinged musical revue at Akeley’s Woodtick Theatre, and the night was a bit of a flashback to high school: Gloria struck up a long conversation with the couple next to them. Jerry listened in from his seat.
Later that summer, Gloria’s son Tony was working by his mom’s shed when he, too, looked up to see what he thought was a lost stranger approach.
“This gentleman drives in with this nice car,” says Tony, who lives just down the road from Gloria’s farm. “He rolls down the window and says, ‘Is Gloria around?’ ”
Tony and his siblings worried about Gloria after their dad’s death, but they never thought about her meeting anyone, “trapped” as she was on the farm. But the gentleman started dropping by every other week, then each week, until Gloria’s large family “adopted” him.
Over and over, Jerry was struck by the pep that powered Gloria’s slender,
4-foot-11 frame. At 70, she got up at 4 each morning to milk 80 cows and did it again in the evening. Since selling the cows a few years ago, Gloria has helped Tony run a sprawling organic oats, rye and hay operation, and she traverses the fields atop a jumbo John Deere tractor.
“She can’t sit in one spot for very long,” says Jerry. “Her home is like a community center. She’s a real people person.”
He says he hasn’t quite embraced Gloria’s fondness for healthy, organic food. (“Her sweets are too good.”) And when it comes to her energy, he jokes, “I try not to catch too much of it. I am retired after all.”
But in truth, Jerry and Gloria have lent each other a new zest.
She encouraged him to join his church choir with her. He took her, the woman whose family can’t remember her ever going on vacation, on countless trips. They hiked in Yellowstone National Park, people-watched in Las Vegas, boxed food and clothing donations in Texas’ Maverick County and took in a bluegrass concert in Hawaii.
Before takeoff on their way to Oahu, Jerry felt suddenly nervous; he’d had a rough plane ride recently. Gloria took his hand and said, “If we go down, we go down together.”
When Gloria’s oldest son died of the disease that took her husband, Jerry offered quiet support that, she says, kept her sane.
Jerry and Gloria think back on their high school days sometimes; they’ve wondered what might have been. But that’s a futile exercise, and somehow they know things worked out fine the way they did.
“We can see we would have gotten along all our lives,” says Gloria. But, “I have a nice family. I had a good husband. I don’t know if Jerry would have dragged me to the city. I’m more of a country girl. Maybe that was the way it was supposed to be.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529