Iowa’s longest married couple recognized after 73 years together
Love at First Sight
Shortly after meeting, Richard Heil and Rosalene Neuroth went on their first date at the Forest Park Ballroom, a popular local dance hall in Marshalltown. Seventy-three years later, they are being recognized as Iowa’s longest married couple by the Worldwide Marriage Encounter.
“We danced, and we danced, and we danced,” she said.
In 1947, it was likely they had done the two-step, her favorite dance, to “What is Life Without Love” by Eddy Arnold or “Move It On Over” by Hank Williams.
They were fairly tight lipped about their first date, but Richard said he was too happy to be nervous and that everything went well — it must have. That was the first of countless nights and dances together that spanned eight decades and 14 presidencies. Frank Sinatra was in full swing by that time, and one can imagine them dancing closely to “If I Steal A Kiss” as the ballroom made its last call.
Richard didn’t steal a kiss that night — that came later. It’s what Rosalene blushingly called their most memorable moment before getting married.
“A neighbor had driven, and we were riding home and were in the back seat of the car,” she paused before laughing. “And we kissed all the way home.”
And she even made it home on time — which may have impressed Rosalene’s parents and built support as they announced their plans to get married soon. Although, Richard said, he wasn’t intimidated by her father, and Rosalene didn’t think they were surprised. They fit well together, and at that time, being married young was the norm.
“I fell in love with her the first time I seen her,” Richard said.
He didn’t remember what she was wearing, although when posed with the question, Rosalene interjected, “Tell me, ‘cuz I’d like to know,” causing both of them to chuckle. He also couldn’t recall where they were, what time of day it was or what was going on in the world — just that he fell in love at first sight.
“She was just beautiful. Simple as that,” he said.
Rosalene followed her husband’s lead, affirming her first impression of Richard: he was attractive.
“He was tall, dark and handsome,” she said. “That’s what I liked about him.”
Rosalene could recall that it was the spring and that she first spotted him downtown Marshalltown.
“I guess I just seen him there on the sidewalk in front of Dixie Barbeque,” she said.
They weren’t set up by friends, an eager-to-help aunt or a church elder. They didn’t experience a meet-cute at a carnival, or reaching for the same pair of black cashmere gloves while last minute Christmas shopping at Bloomingdale’s, or in a doubles game of tennis, or at a diner where Richard was building a log cabin out of waffles. They didn’t own competing bookstores that ultimately brought them together.
It was a simple chance encounter in March of 1947 that led to a 73-year marriage with seven children, 17 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.
Both Rosalene and Richard grew up on farms, which made combining their lives and habits that much easier. Richard said the transition from a single 21-year-old to married life wasn’t challenging — it was better.
“Our love for each other and God being with us. We just hit it off together,” he said.
They made their first home in Saint Anthony on Richard’s parents’ family farm. As a wedding present, Richard’s father gave them a team of horses to drive the equipment that would provide their livelihood.
Through all the advances in medicine, space exploration, technology and pop culture — that wedding gift stands out in Richard’s memory the most. Training the horses was a lot of work and he wondered why his dad gave them to him in the first place as tractors were becoming more readily available. But, he went on with the horses a while before moving to his first tractor which was a 1949 VAC with 35 horsepower.
Their middle child, Jeff, started working the farm with his dad in 1976. Richard began phasing out in the early 90s, but was still out on the farm as recently as the fall. The family farm is now run by fully satellite operated 500 horsepower tractors, but Jeff still has his dad’s first 1949 VAC tractor to this day.
They lived a traditional Midwestern life, with Richard working the land and Rosalene taking care of the home. He was happy with the new menu and enjoyed her cooking. Rosalene said she never had to make Richard “honey-do” lists as he always knew what to do and took care of it.
“We just did what comes naturally,” Rosalene said.
Love, marriage and the next natural step, children. They had seven children a total of 18 years apart — three boys and four girls. Their family grew quickly and continued to grow to a combined 27 grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“Of course there were challenges,” Richard said. “We just tried to teach them to be good Christians together and how to raise a family as Christ would.”
A Brave New World
Richard said young people have certain advantages in today’s society, but he feels it was easier to become financially established when he and Rosalene were young.
They got married as the U.S. approached a decade of prosperity. WWII was over, and so were the rations that went along with it. The economy grew by 37 percent in the 50s. Inflation was minimal, there was cheap domestic oil, social security was expanded and the interstate highway system was developed.
Between the year 1947, when they first met, and two years after their final child was born in 1969, the U.S. achieved seven of the country’s 12 budget surpluses since 1940 — the last was in 2001.
People of their generation grew up through the Great Depression, a decade of sky high unemployment and rationing of consumer goods as a result of WWII armament production.
By the 1950s, Americans had 30 percent more spending power at the end of the decade than they started with, and the economy shifted toward credit consumerism. As the first credit card was made available in 1950 by the Diners’ Club, Inc. the spending habits of Americans changed.
This brave new world of credit and luxury expenditures didn’t affect Richard and Rosalene’s habits. They didn’t get one of the new revelatory credit cards. Their approach was that if you didn’t have cash, you didn’t spend.
The Heils did benefit from some of the opportunities that made the 50s boom. The G.I. Bill assisted with their agricultural efforts through guidance and financial backing. Because of Richard’s veteran status, he had other government benefits that helped them along as their family quickly grew.
Richard was drafted into the army in 1945 and joined the paratroopers in Columbus, Ga. During his training, the war ended, and the demand for paratroopers lessened.
He was stationed in Okinawa for a year where he did a few jumps, but it was mostly a peacekeeping mission following Japan’s surrender. Richard said jumping out of a plane was filled with excitement and fear.
“It was a very easy life with not much to do. I enjoyed the freedom. I had a Jeep of my own for a while and could travel wherever I wanted. Gas was free. I went to the ocean a lot by myself and was just out there floating around killing time,” he said.
Man, Woman and God
When asked what they value most about each other, or what their spouse has taught them, both Rosalene and Richard turned the question back to God and their faith.
“I think the most important thing is our love for God and following Jesus as we both do,” he said. “She’s taught me a lot about how to grow in my faith.”
Rosalene was happy she didn’t have to usher her husband out the door on Sunday mornings. Since they both grew up Catholic, they were on the same page.
“I didn’t have to ask him to go to church. He was always ready to go,” she said.
Over the years, there were some things she had to ask him to do, like picking up whatever he might’ve left around the house.
They also had different views on his fashion. She’d often ask, or advise him to change clothes, which sometimes lead to Richard running around the house with no clothes — the thing that makes Rosalene laugh the most.
Rosalene and Richard said there isn’t a trick or secret to a lasting marriage. Rosalene thinks that more people choose to get divorced now because marriage wasn’t what they thought it would be. It’s a lot of work and requires sacrifice and selflessness.
“It’s listening to each other, knowing each other’s needs and enjoying life,” she said.
Freedom, family, turmoil and flower power
The couple wasn’t cut off or unaware of the changes and challenges happening in society over their 73 years together, but they were insulated and focused on a simple and rural family life. They made a commitment to marriage, and it seems they had a near 100 percent chance of success. Another option was never considered.
“We learned to make decisions together, not by ourselves… and how to give and take,” Richard said.
Challenges would arise, and they faced uncertainty. They would lean on the promise to approach it together. During big historic moments like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the increase in U.S. combat troops in Vietnam, they relied on their faith and each other. They kept moving forward with the patterns that had formed their lives.
“We were concerned about everything going on, but we were tied up and couldn’t do much about it,” he said. “It led us to pray more about the needs for the country and we kept it together through Jesus Christ.”
Richard spent much of his time in the fields while the world and the country were changing. He had a radio with him in the tractor, but the signals coming through often felt far from home. Compared to his work and family, they were background noise.
“As I was busy farming, I didn’t have too much time to worry about too much,” he said.
Rosalene’s response to many questions about historic events, or bucket list items she crossed off were similar — she was dedicated to her role as a mother and wife. “Where were you?” moments like the Kennedy assassination don’t jump out to them.
“My wife was in Marshalltown with the kids, and I was at home doing work,” Richard said.
Their son Jeff jumped in to paint the picture as he remembers it.
“I was in kindergarten. I got home from school, and you guys were watching your soap opera and it flashed on the television, breaking news,” he said. “And you still watch that same old soap opera today.”
The soap opera was “As The World Turns.” Ten minutes into the episode on Nov. 22, 1963, the Hughes family was discussing their Thanksgiving plans when Walter Cronkite cut in to report the assination. The show was performed live, and the cast members were told what happened after filming wrapped.
“As The World Turns” premiered in 1954. It was the number one rated daytime soap opera 20 years in a row, racking up 43 Daytime Emmys. They watch reruns on syndication now as it was cancelled in 2010. The show was the first to premier at 30 minutes long from the previous 15-minute format, and it was the first CBS soap to go to an hour in 1975.
Series star Helen Wagner was on the show for 54 years and was the longest running cast member. The show featured daytime TV’s first openly gay character and the first kiss between two men.
The U.S. introduced zip codes the same year Kennedy was killed — 50120 was the Heils’ first. They had just moved from Richard’s family farm to Rosalene’s grandparents’ farm in Haverhill. The Heil family is still farming the land as Jeff carries on that legacy.
Jeff said the 1960s impacted the family. His older brother was into the countercultural movement, and the late 60s created a lot of turmoil and challenges for the country. Richard and Rosalene felt it at home.
His parents were quiet about it — they were trying to raise kids in a conservative environment — but everything broke open in that era. They were navigating how to deal with the drastic differences between the 40s and 50s and the new reality.
By the 1980s, they had an empty nest and gained some freedom back. They didn’t explore wild new hobbies or make drastic changes. They started reading more.
Jeff said they learned a lot from the turbulent times in the late 60s and early 70s. Both Richard and Rosalene came from large families. The tradition of rural culture they were familiar with shifted, and it changed them.
They had to adjust to their kids, freedom, rebellion and the flower power movement. At that time in particular, Richard dug deep into his faith due to the tempestuous nature of what was happening around him.
“I thought it was pretty far out and crazy,” he said. “I didn’t have anything to do about it besides pray.”
Jeff said his dad took in what was happening, gained insight, and used it to shape his role as a grandparent.
“It forced more interest in looking at the kids and what was going on,” Jeff said. “Afterwards, they took a big active role in their grandchildren. I think they learned as elderly people they needed to be involved and help their children guide their own kids.”
Rosalene said things were different for their kids when they got married in comparison to the factors surrounding her own marriage.
“We probably tried to tell them what we thought was best, but that didn’t mean that they always did it,” she said. “They went about their ways, and we accepted it.”
Iowa’s Longest Married Couple
Life on the farm kept them close to home for 40 years. The couple didn’t take their first commercial flight until 1988, when they went to Hawaii.
“We were busy taking care of kids,” Rosalene said. “We just did what we had to do.”
The couple left the farm house and moved to Marshalltown in 1998. When their kids grew into adults, they gained some freedom to travel. They have spent time during the winter in Arizona, but they still made time to be on the sidelines for baseball, track and soccer games.
Richard and Rosalene were nominated for Iowa’s longest married couple award by Sue and John Fink, who work for the Worldwide Marriage Encounter and go to church with the Heils. They offer weekend experiences to couples that teach communication techniques.
The Heils were presented with a certificate of recognition during Sunday mass on Nov. 14 at St. Henry Catholic Church.
“They are very family oriented. Every time we are at church, we see them there,” Sue Fink said. “If other family members are there, they’ll be sitting with them as well.”
Over the past nine years of the Worldwide Marriage Encounter program, there have been thousands of nominations. The nominations are open to all couples regardless of religious affiliation, and 81 years of marriage is the average length for the national winners. State winners are considered members of the alumni and can vie for the national title each year.
It’s possible that Richard and Rosalene could be the nation’s longest married couple a few years down the road. Until then, they will keep dancing, and dancing and dancing like they did on their first date 74 years ago. Richard described his time in the ocean at Okinawa as “out here floating around killing time,” and in this life, what better way to kill time than with the person he fell in love with at first sight?