Stories of high school prom dates that blossom into romance and marriage aren’t unusual. One that took more than 40 years, and a garden half a continent wide to bloom, is special.
In 1955, Marion High School juniors Jerry Dieter and Lenore Wheeler weren’t sweethearts, just familiar friends and neighbors who attended the same church. Dieter’s responsibilities on the family farm kept him too occupied for romance.
“I guess I wasn’t interested in girls at the time,” Jerry said. “We came to town, went to school, went home, did our chores.”
When it was time for junior-senior prom, it didn’t take too much effort for Jerry to decide Lenore was the girl to ask to be his date.
“I said, ‘Well, he doesn’t look so bad, I guess I can go with him,’” Lenore recalled.
The most memorable moment from their junior prom date wasn’t a preview of the romance to come decades later.
“He was very shy, he hardly spoke the whole evening,” Lenore said. “The only thing he ever asked me that I can remember is, ‘Why do you salt your meat before you eat it?’”
The absence of sparkling conversation the first time didn’t prevent Lenore from accepting a second prom invitation from Jerry in their senior year. The date was better than the first one, but still, no romance. If the evening ended with a kiss, it was less than memorable.
“I don’t know, do you remember?” Jerry asked Lenore. “No,” she laughed.
When they graduated in 1956, the two were destined for different paths.
“He was a farm boy, I was a lawyer’s daughter. I just thought I was going my way, he was going his way,” Lenore said. “I just said when we graduated, ‘Good bye!’”
Lenore earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Wichita State University and moved to Blue Island, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, to teach music in public school. She married there in 1963.
Jerry headed to Phillips University in Enid, Okla., majored in chemistry, and went on to a graduate program at the University of Kansas, eventually earning a doctorate. He married in 1965 and that same year accepted a job with Sinclair Oil in Park Forest, Ill., another Chicago suburb, not far from Lenore.
“We actually ran into you guys once, at the Park Forest mall,” Jerry said, looking at Lenore. Her recollection of the encounter was dim.
“I was occupied,” she said.
Lenore moved shortly after that to Columbus, Ohio, where her husband attended a Lutheran seminary. They moved to Canton, Ohio, then to South Dakota, and then back to Illinois, where their 12-year marriage came to an end.
Lenore returned to Marion with her two sons, who were in first and seventh grades, and worked at the law office of her father, David Wheeler, while she took classes to regain her teaching certificate. She got a job in Junction City in 1981, where she taught for 16 years, before retiring to Marion to help support her mother. During that time, romance wasn’t an option Lenore considered.
“I was busy raising my boys, being a responsible parent, coming home from school and getting ready for the next day, because I wanted to keep that job,” Lenore said.
Meanwhile, Jerry’s career took him east, first to Philadelphia, Penn., and then to Detroit, Mich., for a two-year position at the Polymer Institute at the University of Detroit, and then a 25-year stint with Grow Group, Inc., a major supplier of chemicals and coatings for the automotive industry.
“I went to Detroit temporarily in 1971, and didn’t leave until 1999,” Jerry said.
The string of events that would eventually bring Jerry and Lenore together began in 1996, when Jerry decided to attend his 40-year high school class reunion.
“I think that’s the first reunion I came to,” Jerry said.
Lenore was there, too, and they sat together and talked as they rode a trolley through the Old Settlers Day parade. Lenore’s impression of Jerry was distinctly different from their two prom dates.
“When I came home, I said, “Mom, if he weren’t married, I’d be really interested in him,” Lenore said. “By that time, he’d really made something of himself. He had all these degrees, and he was so easy to talk to.”
Jerry’s three children were grown when his 32-year marriage came to an end two years later, and in 1999 he moved from Detroit to Denver, Colo. He was browsing Internet web sites related to Marion early in 2000, when he discovered an e-mail address he thought might be Lenore’s.
“I e-mailed her and asked if she was the Lenore I knew in high school. I didn’t even expect to get a response — it was probably more curiosity than anything,” Jerry said.
“He didn’t know I had my eyes on him years earlier,” Lenore said. “The sparks were starting to fly way back when we were on that trolley, but he didn’t know it.”
Lenore did respond, and the correspondence grew. Jerry started making visits to Marion, and those became more frequent, too.
“At first I stayed with my cousins, and then I was wearing them out,” Jerry said. “I ended up spending more time with her than with them, so I thought I’d better stay in a hotel.”
“I do know that he made a lot of trips to Kansas, back and forth, and back and forth,” Lenore said.
By Thanksgiving 2001, Lenore was ready for more, but found Jerry needed a little prodding.
“I had another man interested in me, and I said to Jerry this is how it is,” Lenore said. “You need to tell me what you’re thinking and take some action, or good-bye, Jerry.”
“I went home and thought about it a couple of days, and I sent a proposal by e-mail,” Jerry said. “It wasn’t just a one-liner, it was at least a page or more. I guess the last line was the proposal.”
Lenore responded in-kind, accepting Jerry’s proposal with a return e-mail, and then they talked on the phone.
“I was very pleased,” Lenore said.
“I came out a little before Christmas and made it official by getting her a ring. I guess by then I had your mother’s and sister’s approval,” Jerry said, smiling at Lenore.
“My mother really liked you,” Lenore said.
The Dieters got married a year later, Dec. 21, 2002, but the long-distance relationship continued until Jerry could retire with full benefits in 2004, when he finally moved to Marion to be with Lenore.
They agree their love had thrived because they share common backgrounds, values, education, and interests, including travel, but have enough differences to keep things interesting.
“I really think we complement each other, because of our differences,” Lenore said. “I’m the more artsy person, he’s more exact and analytical.”
“She likes to do things fast, and I can’t get it done fast enough to suit her,” Jerry said.
“We both are interested in the outdoors — he’s mostly a tree and bonsai person, and I love flowers,” Lenore said.
“I’m not mechanically-inclined, where he is,” she said.
“You don’t do too bad, though I guess you wouldn’t put the rear differential into the tractor,” Jerry said.
“Oh no — I wondered if you’d ever get it done,” Lenore responded.
“It worked, too, didn’t it?” Jerry quipped.
The Dieters share the belief that good marriages depend on balance and shared commitment to contribute to the relationship.
“I think it’s very important that you both do your share, and work like a team. I think that’s what has kept us together — we both work hard to make things work,” Lenore said.
Jerry and Lenore are involved in activities that support the community, and will keep their Valentine’s Day celebration local by going to Country Lakes Café.
“I think we both like to contribute, want to see Marion do well,” Lenore said.
The Dieters hope single adults who are still looking for love will be encouraged by their story.
“There’s a definite possibility that if you look in the right places, you’ll find a significant other,” Lenore said.