It’s 2,159 miles from South Bend, Indiana, to Seattle, Washington. When Bob and Mary ventured West for the summer of 1956, they convinced their parents it only made sense to share the ride. To evade uncomfortable questions, they pointed out that Harvey Caesar was riding along. The trip took about 60 hours at an average speed of 36 miles per hour on two-lane roads. This was before the interstate highway system, so every town they encountered slowed their progress with its local speed limit.
When the three travelers stopped in North Dakota, and in Pocatello, Idaho, Mary occupied a motel room separate from the guys. She even managed to convince Bob, a Lutheran, and Harvey, a Jew, to attended a Catholic church on Sunday. Despite the guise of wholesomeness, however, Bob and Mary were already an item. That summer in Seattle would turn romance into a proposal of marriage.
In the winter of 1954, it was a car ride that started to turn friendship into romance. A hair-raising road trip from Lafayette, Indiana to Aurora, New York, through ice and driving snow. Bob was on his way to Wells College on Lake Cayuga to see Marilynn, the girl he’d been dating back in Cleveland.
“I met Howie Albrecht at Acacia, a fraternity I was checking out during freshman year,” said Bob. “When I told him my plan to visit New York during winter break, he wanted to tag along. I was happy for the company. And the gas money.”
Bob mentioned the trip to Mary when he saw her in class. She and her roommate Dottie D’Amico agreed to share the back seat of Bob’s ’51 Mercury. The plan included dropping the girls off at Dottie’s house in Rochester. Mary expected to meet up there with her boyfriend Walter.
Winter on the Great Lakes can be bitter, and as the four Purdue sophomores headed Northeast, skirting the southern shore of Lake Erie, a blizzard engulfed them. With their limited college-break window, they gave no thought to stopping or turning back. As visibility diminished, all eyes fixed on the road, and Bob’s hands gripped the wheel.
A wreck on the highway brought the peril of the storm into sharp focus. Fellow travelers had rolled off the road into a ditch. The car lay on its roof, headlights illuminating the swirling snow overhead. Concerned there might be injuries, or worse, Bob and Howie got out to investigate. Perhaps there was something they could do for the vehicle’s unlucky passengers. In a fated twist, Howie turned from rescuer to victim when he tangled with a snow-camouflaged barbed wire fence. Poor Howie emerged torn and bloodied.
Bob and Howie did get a peek inside the vehicle, but discovered the occupants had already been rescued or escaped uninjured. However, now Howie was in need of first aid and comfort. He climbed into the back seat where Dottie did what she could to patch him up.
And that’s how Mary came to share the front bench seat with Bob. With still miles to go, the last thing Mary wanted was for Bob to fall asleep.
“I started talking, and kept talking,” recalls Mary. “I told him my whole life story on that trip. I figured it was my job to keep him awake. He learned pretty much all there was to know about me. He knew me totally after that drive!”
Uncharacteristically, “I didn’t say much,” said Bob, remembering the eleven-hour white-knuckle trip. “My full attention was glued to the road. Especially after encountering that accident.”
Bob and Mary met during their freshman year at a Purdue football game. A chance meeting that can’t be considered remarkable, since cheering the Boilermakers was practically a required Saturday activity. But fate and football did play a role in bringing the two together.
Bob played fullback, then guard and linebacker in high school, eventually becoming captain of his defensive team. His talent secured him an athletic scholarship at Case Institute of Technology. The only problem: They disbanded their football program as Bob prepared to attend. (Case joined Western Reserve University in 1967, becoming Case Western Reserve). With his college plans no longer in the bag, he needed to find an affordable four-year engineering program. His buddy, Chuck Hagberg, was Purdue-bound. Now Bob was, too.
When he arrived at Purdue, Bob was faced with the realization that his days of being Big Man On Campus were over. Engineering and agriculture were the dominate fields of study, and as a result the gender ratio was wildly off balance: Five guys to every one girl.
“In high school, if I wanted to go out with a girl Friday night, I’d ask her Friday afternoon,” said Bob. “I found out Purdue girls mostly dated upper classmen. If you wanted to go to the movies, you’d have to ask weeks ahead of time, before anyone knew what was playing at the theatre!”
Bob got another dose of reality when he tried out for the Boilermaker football team. Just a few bruising tryouts convinced him the team was out of his league. This may be another twist of fate that put Bob in the stands that Saturday, where he could meet the girl who’d become his wife. Nonetheless, it’d be hard not to notice the young coed from South Bend; she was usually the only female in their engineering classes.
Mary didn’t give much thought to how pioneering it was in the 50s to be a girl in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field.
“It was pretty simple,” she said. “My brother was graduating from Purdue. My father was an engineer. My uncle was an engineer. I wasn’t going to be an artist. That fact was made clear by my high school art teacher.”
Mary didn’t run with the popular crowd at Central High School in South Bend. She wasn’t the sorority type, and didn’t plan to join one at Purdue. In fact, her Dad made it clear he would pay for her college education, not her social life. When Mary arrived on campus, it didn’t take long for her to attract more interest from boys than she could have ever imagined.
“I would have eleven guys ask me out every weekend,” Mary recalled.
“Freshman boys just couldn’t compete,” explained Bob. “We were nobodies, even with the freshman girls.”
“I always went out with the first guy who asked me, though,” said Mary.
Bob tells of boys occupying the hall phone, dialing extensions for the women’s dorm, and asking anyone who answered for a date. Occasionally, the boy’s dorm would host a party in their dining hall and put out a blanket invitation to their female classmates. However, there’s a cruel story behind the scenes.
“Girls who were unaffiliated with a sorority were called the Purdue Independent Girls. That’s P.I.G.” said Bob. “Looking back, it was pretty awful.”
“I never knew anything about it at the time,” said Mary. “I don’t think I ever went to those parties.”
“It wasn’t pretty. We had a thing called the Pig Pool. We’d put money in a pot, and the guy who ended up with the most…er…unattractive date, would win the pool.”
“I’m glad I never attended.”
In fact, Mary recalls always being treated fairly and respectfully by the young men around her. She did get noticed, though. The Lafayette newspaper profiled her in an article titled, “Powderpuff Engineers.” The article featured a photo of Mary wearing a tight sweater and posing beside a transit, a surveying tool on tripod legs. Visually interesting as it was, Mary was studying to become a mechanical engineer, not a civil engineer.
“It was really very flattering at the time, though,” she said.
Some of Bob’s friends avoided dating girls in the engineering program, but Bob found it refreshing to be around smart young women like Mary. He made a point of chatting with her in classes and whenever he encountered her in the Sweet Shop at the student union. But it wasn’t until half way through Sophomore year they saw more in their relationship than casual acquaintance.
By that time, Bob lived off campus. At the start of their second year at Purdue, Chuck Hagberg joined Acacia, the masonic fraternity. Bob figured he’d try it, too, but realized the high concentration of Ag students in the house didn’t fulfill his need for intellectual stimulation. So that didn’t last.
In order to mix with a more thoughtful crowd, Bob took up playing bridge and chess during his free time. These pastimes had him hanging out with older students and some young professors. When he left Acacia, he wound up sharing an apartment with two graduate students named Bob Stoller and Roger Smith. The three young men shared the meal preparation by rotating weeks. This is how Bob learned to cook, following recipes in a red-plaid spiral-bound Betty Crocker cookbook. And entertainment was practically built in; for a while, at least.
Bob tells it this way: “The Salty Dogs would crash at our apartment when they came to town, usually between gigs in Chicago or Indianapolis. My roommates were friends with Randy Wilkinson, the jazz band’s banjo player. Randy played with Turk Murphy, a famous Dixieland band leader. We hosted jam sessions in our apartment when the band came to town. It was great fun…until one of those jam sessions got us evicted.”
Now we’ve caught up to that snowy Upstate New York trip with Mary telling her life story while Howie bled from barbed-wire wounds in the back seat. It kept snowing. Bob kept driving. The next thing they knew, they’d lost traction on an icy hill somewhere near Erie, Pennsylvania.
Bob and Mary watched the traffic light at the bottom of the hill turned yellow, then red. They silently realized the car was not going to stop. And if it did manage to stop, they’d never be able to power up the next hill. They braced for impact, ready to be sideswiped by cross traffic. Through the intersection they flew, and they kept on going. It seems other drivers knew enough to stay off the road in a snowstorm.
The weather wasn’t the only thing gone cold that January. Everyone made it to their intended destinations; Bob and Howie hung out for a few days at Wells College after they dropped the girls off at Dottie’s home in Rochester. But the sweethearts they’d travelled to meet didn’t meet their expectations.
“I got a distinctly cool feeling from Marilynn while I was with her,” said Bob. “I don’t think we dated again after that.”
“Well, Walter didn’t even show up,” said Mary. The highlight of the girls’ stay in Rochester was an evening out to a night club with Dottie’s parents.
Back at Purdue, class work, bookwork, and labs kept Bob and Mary busy during the week. As engineering students they were provided with plenty of hands-on opportunities, including re-assembling car engines.
Saturday football games were an all-school activity, although the Purdue Boilermakers weren’t a winning team. So when they beat powerhouse Michigan State in ’53, all 10,000 students gathered and marched to the university president’s house, demanding a school holiday to commemorate the win. The president eventually appeared with a bull horn and announced that everyone who attended the rally prior to the game could be excused from school Monday. While typically only a handful of the most spirited students attended rallies, everyone “claimed” they’d earned the day off.
Date nights might include a stop at Harry’s Chocolate Shop. West Lafayette had been a dry town since prohibition. Only Harry’s Tavern was grandfathered in and allowed to serve alcohol. However, they’d agreed with the city council to change their name to Harry’s Chocolate Shop, and it was the local watering hole for Purdue students.
Even after getting to know each other a lot better on their Upstate trip, Bob would occasionally call Mary and ask if she knew any girls available for a date. Mary fixed him up several times.
“Then, one day he called and I couldn’t find anyone to go out with him,” said Mary. “So I had to go out with him myself. He took me to the movies. Our first real date.”
Bob and Mary went home during the summer between Sophomore and Junior year and didn’t see each other again until the Fall. With their busy schedules, it may have been near impossible to find the time anyway. Bob secured a job at Lincoln Electric and, on top of working 40-hour weeks, he took two required electives; economics and psychology, at Western Reserve University. He also went back to work at the SOHIO gas station near his family home.
Mary spent part of the summer back at Purdue taking apart and rebuilding an 8-cylindar automobile engine. She also spent a second summer working at Bendix, her father’s employer, reading oscillograph records; analog charts made by galvanometers with tiny mirrors exposing long rolls of photo paper.
Junior year provided opportunities for Bob and Mary to became closer. During another memorable semester break, Bob and his friend, John, took a road trip to drop in on friends at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. They started running out of money and decided to take Mary up on her offer to crash at her house in South Bend where she and her roommate, Pat Carney, were staying.
“I don’t remember his last name, but everyone called John ‘Oh-John,’” said Mary. “Because whenever anyone mentioned him, people would say, ‘Oh! John!’”
“Pat got along with Oh-John really well,” said Bob.
They spent an evening dancing and, as Mary tells it, “Oh-John rested his head on Pat’s breast while they slow danced.”
“I have to say,” said Bob, “all of us became quite snuggly that evening.”
One day, walking down the corridor of the electrical engineering building, Bob saw an advertisement for summer jobs at Boeing Aircraft Company. He tore two slips off the poster, and as he walked on, encountered Mary coming the other way. Bob suggested they both apply.
“My first reaction, ‘Oh, my parents would never let me do anything like that!’” said Mary. “But then I thought, ‘I’m going to be twenty-one this year. My mother came to this country by herself at the age of twenty-one.’ So I called my parents and said, ‘I’m applying for a summer job at Boeing in Seattle.’ They said, ‘Where’s that?’”
“When the recruiters interviewed us,” Bob said, “we told them we come as a package. So they gave us both job offers.”
Boeing hired 120 students from around the country during the summer of 1956. Two of them were women.
By the time Bob and Mary arrived in Seattle, they’d left Harvey Caesar off in Eugene and, sadly, another travelling companion in Idaho. Mary and Pat’s goldfish, ThermoShake (Thermo from Thermodynamics; Shake from Shakespeare) swam around in a used vodka bottle in the back seat, but died before the second day. They conducted a small service and consecrated him to the Pocatello sewer system.
Boeing arranged with Theta Xi at the University of Washington to house their summer employees. When Bob and Mary arrived on the fraternity’s doorstep, Bob secured a room. Then Mary asked about her room. They told her she’d have to sleep with the cook in the basement. That didn’t appeal, so Mary found a room at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Chausee who lived two blocks away. The Chausees were fine hosts for Mary and even included Bob on several outings and dinners.
Every weekday morning, Bob loaded the back seat of his Mercury with guys who shared the cost of gas, then swung by the Chausees’ to pick up Mary. There was no Interstate 5, so they commuted to Boeing Field by way of 23rd Avenue.
After two weeks of orientation, Bob was assigned to flight test instrumentation for the famous Boeing 367-80; the prototype for both the 707 and the KC-135. The hand-built plane he worked on now resides in the Smithsonian museum near Dulles field, Washington D.C. He was required to wear leather-soled moccasins in order to walk on wings, tails, and fuselages without making scratches.
“It was the greatest job a junior in college could have,” Bob recalled.
“My job was rather blah,” said Mary. “I was making changes to mechanical drawings for the B-52.” Still, she feels the assignment was purely random.
Bob and Mary didn’t see each other during work days, but they spent much of their free time together.
“The weather was wonderful,” recalled Bob. “Only one day of rain. We took trips to Hanford in Eastern Washington, and to British Columbia.”
“One weekend a group of us went to the beach with a case of beer,” said Mary. “The tide came in and washed the beer into Puget Sound. The guys waded into the water to retrieve it.”
“We went to the hydroplane races,” Bob recalled fondly. “Another time we got locked into Woodland Park Zoo and had to climb over a fence and shimmy along the foot bridge over Highway 99.”
When summer was over, Bob and Mary agreed to drive home non-stop.
“Staying at a motel now became a problem because our relationship was getting to be a bigger scandal with our parents,” said Bob.
“He asked me to marry him near the end of summer,” said Mary. “But he didn’t have a ring.”
“Yes. And Mary’s Mom made it clear it wasn’t an engagement without a ring,” Bob added.
On this cross-country drive, the back seat was occupied by an acquaintance who’d been on a surveying trip in Alaska. Apparently he’d taken only one shower. Bob drove the entire 55 hours from Seattle to South Bend, stopping only for food, gas, and for their passenger to buy a holster for his new gun. Again, Mary talked non-stop to keep Bob focused on the road.
As their senior year began, the couple set a date for the wedding. It would be thirteen days after graduation. Bob satisfied Mary’s parents by acquiring an engagement ring with the help of his tough-guy bouncer roommates from East Chicago.
Bob and Mary began interviewing for engineering jobs, wondering where they would live after graduation. Possible locations ranged from the mid-west to Baltimore, Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles. However, another opportunity presented itself on a hallway bulletin board: an AEC special fellowship to study nuclear engineering anywhere in the U.S.
Ever since hearing the news of the atom bombs that ended World War II, Bob had been intrigued by the potential of nuclear energy. He decided to apply to the Atoms for Peace program, and received one of 127 fellowships granted. It was a generous offer of full tuition for a Masters degree at any of fifteen participating engineering schools, plus $3,500 per year in living expenses. Graduating engineers at the time were landing jobs with annual salaries of $6,000. But this fellowship program promised an advanced degree after one year in a field of study that was just being de-classified.
With the final fellowship paperwork in hand, Bob asked Mary, “Should I do this or not? Because I need to mail in this paperwork.”
“Sure, I said, ‘Let’s mail it in,’” recalled Mary, “So I jumped out of the car, put the envelope in the mailbox, jumped back in, and said, ‘You know, if you change your mind, you can always tell them.’ He said, ‘No, that was the commitment.’ So we did it.”
Bob favored MIT and Michigan, and ended up choosing the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Bob and Mary initially got jobs in Jackson, Michigan, at Commonwealth Associates, an engineering consulting firm. Bob would be working on a the Fermi nuclear reactor project near Detroit, an opportunity to get a jump start on his studies. Mary was going to be working on pipe hangers, a less exciting engineering challenge.
They needed to find a place to live in Ann Arbor, so Bob made a trip there and found a one-room apartment for $87.50 per month. It was in the basement of 809 East Kingsley; fully furnished with a fold-out bed. They didn’t need a lot of room, though.
“Our total belongings could fit easily in Bob’s car,” explained Mary.
A lot was happening that senior year, and Bob and Mary still needed to complete their studies to graduate.
Mary was planning a wedding. “My Dad gave me $400 to plan the wedding and reception. I also got a sewing machine for graduation so I could make my dress.”
Bob knew he needed to come through with a honeymoon, but he had no idea how that was going to happen with zero budget.
“Thankfully, Mary’s Aunt Maly and Uncle Willie suggested we use their cabin in Minong, Wisconsin. When we decided we would do that, Maly and Willie were thrilled.”
With the nuptials approaching, religion became a source of tension. At the start, Bob’s Protestant parents hinted they might not attend their only child’s Catholic wedding. Mary mentioned this to her Dad. He said, “He’s an only child. They’ll be there.” Bob sat for religious training with Purdue’s Catholic priest.
“That went pretty well,” Bob recalled, “mostly because I brought cigars and we discussed philosophy.”
But when the couple met with Mary’s hometown priest, his un-Christian attitudes shocked them. They requested a different pastor to conduct the ceremony.
On June 15, 1957, friends and family gathered, and Mary emerged at the end of the nave with her sister Maggie at her side. Bob, explaining that his parents were in the Catholic pews under duress, slipped the priest a twenty-dollar bill and asked him not to sprinkle them with holy water. But when Mary looked down the length of the church toward the alter, she exclaimed, “Oh, no, not him!” then walked out. The wedding had to be put on hold while Maggie explained to her sister that their preferred pastor was at home with a troublesome cyst on his side. At last the ceremony resumed.
After the reception, which was held in the backyard of Mary’s childhood home, the couple took their first drive together as man and wife in the same ‘51 Mercury that played such an important role in their romance. However, on that day it was cleverly camouflaged in a new coat of bright blue paint, and hidden in plain sight to avoid being decorated with tin cans and streamers.
Copyright Liz Behlke, 2018