Gene Newell had hoped to surprise his sweetheart, Shirley, with an early return home from the Korean War in 1954 after serving 18 months. Home was Iowa where Shirley and life as a dairy farmer awaited.
Gene enlisted the help of some Army buddies to make his surprise plan work.
“I wrote several letters ahead, stamped them, addressed them and I said, ‘Here fellas, send one every other day to her. By the time you use up these letters, I’ll be home,’ ” Gene said.
But, there would be no surprise. Gene was scooped by the local newspaper, which listed the names of area servicemen who were coming home. Shirley saw Gene’s name and knew they’d soon be reunited.
“I was getting letters from Korea but they were getting shorter and I thought, ‘Gee, he always wrote a lot from his foxhole,’” she said. “Then, I got ahold of The Des Moines Register.”
Said Gene with a laugh: “The surprise was on me!”
Shirley left word with Gene’s mother to have him meet her at a local bowling alley when he reached town. Forty-two days later, they were married.
The couple will celebrate 60 years of marriage on Nov. 11. Fittingly, it’s Veteran’s Day.
They first met when they were about 15 at a dance hall where kids gathered on the weekends. They share a laugh over Gene’s first impression of Shirley.
“She was covered with freckles,” he said. “I thought ‘Wow, I don’t know about those freckles.’ But we got acquainted and we danced a little bit and I said, ‘Can I take you home?’”
“Let’s put it this way,” Shirley said. “I was very interested.”
Before long, Gene was courting her in a 1935 Dodge that belonged to his grandfather. Their relationship remained strong, even when Gene got his draft notice from the Army. But, life returned to normal once he was back home and on the farm.
Farming always has been part of their lives. Gene dropped out of high school in the 11th grade to pursue dairy farming. Shirley was born on the farm in Long Grove, Iowa, that has been in her family for 100 years. She thought she would follow her mother’s path and become a teacher. Instead, she joined Gene at the dairy where she handled everything from milking cows to tending to the crops.
Gene is just a few months younger than Shirley, who recently turned 84. They are in excellent health and remain active, which includes early morning stops for Gene at the dairy he now runs with his son, Dan.
Gene still enjoys taking a spin on his motorcycle and bowls on Wednesday nights. He was roller-blading until recently when both knees needed to be replaced. Shirley is active with her local fair board and five grandchildren. They both enjoy snowmobile rides through their Iowa pastures.
Gene and Shirley share a lifetime of memories built through hard work and rearing three children. The key to such a long and happy marriage is simple, they say.
“Working together is the secret,” Gene says. “We had our arguments just like everybody else, but the common goal of working together and being together every day is the key to our happiness.”