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66 Years of Marriage, Death 39 Hours Apart

Ohio’s Mansfield News Journal recently shared what it calls the “enduring love story” of a local couple married for 66 years who died only 39 hours apart.

Although it is easy to note how remarkable the timing of their deaths was, the way Bob and Eleanor Rietschlin lived their marriage and family life for the six and a half decades preceding their 2013 passing from this life is a striking testament to the beauty of the Sacrament of Matrimony.

Bob and Eleanor met at Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Bethlehem Ohio, during the 1942 Christmas pageant. Eleanor was cast as Mary, and Bob as Joseph. Rehearsals were held every Sunday, and the two would chat behind the scenes.

Bob and Eleanor began dating soon after and were engaged in 1944, just before Bob left for the army. Letters were exchanged between the two as their courtship continued. Before turning 21, the two were united in the Sacrament of Marriage on a frigid February day in 1947.

The early days of marriage were challenging. According to the Mansfield News Journal, Eleanor had difficulty adjusting to farm life, which included an outhouse and a hand pump instead of indoor plumbing. Even more so, the couple endured the trial of being unable to conceive for the first few years of their marriage.

Things began to change, and for four consecutive summers a new Rietschlin was welcomed into their home. In 1953, the family moved into the farm home formerly belonging to Bob’s grandfather. They never moved again. In all, Bob and Eleanor had nine children.

The Rietschlin children have fond memories of their childhood – playing together, especially outdoors, and having evening sing-a-longs with Bob playing the harmonica and Eleanor playing the piano. Sundays were an especially important day for the family. Bob was adamant about not working on the Sabbath. Sunday evenings were filled with music or family movies and freshly popped popcorn.

“They were very loving and life revolved around the children. They were tickled with family life,” said Rosemary Kanney, Bob’s younger sister. “I was very proud of them. They had a very happy family life.”

Pope Francis has remarked that there are three phrases that must be at the heart of family life – please, thank you and I’m sorry. Bob exhibited the latter in a poignant encounter with his son John, who moved to Canada with his wife due to conscientious objections to participating in the Vietnam War. Bob and Eleanor disagreed with their son’s decision (Bob was a World War II veteran) and did not have contact with John after his move. But when John and Donna’s second child died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 1974, Bob, Eleanor and their other eight children traveled to Canada for the funeral.

“[I]t had been three years since I’d last seen him,” John said, his voice choking with emotion. “It’s crazy. It was 40 years ago, but it still brings me to tears to remember it.”

Before the funeral, Bob spoke to his son. “He basically said this is more important. He still didn’t agree with me, but it was more important for him to be there for me,” John recalled. “Again, he didn’t agree (with the decision to leave the country), but he apologized for breaking off the relationship. After that, he stayed in contact.”

Bob and Eleanor made time together a priority in ways that suited their situation in life. While their children were still in diapers, they grocery shopped together every Thursday while relatives babysat. After Bob’s retirement, the couple took vacations together. In their final years they would sit at home together reading – Eleanor her novels, and Bob his Reader’s Digest and Catholic newspapers and magazines.

Cheryl Rietschlin, who married their son Luke, said about her parents-in-law, “The one thing that amazed me was [they] never did anything without the other. If Dad didn’t go, they didn’t go; and if Mom didn’t go, they didn’t go. They did everything together.”

Over time, Eleanor’s health declined. Bob took care of her, even learning from Eleanor how to cook their meals. Four years before her death, Eleanor went to live in a nursing home to provide the additional health care she needed. Bob faithfully visited every day.

And when Bob could no longer stay in the farmhouse alone, their children found a room down the hallway from Eleanor in the nursing home.

In July 2013 the couple made their final public appearance together at their granddaughter’s wedding, even enjoying their favorite wedding tradition of the anniversary dance.

Their son Tom related to the Mansfield News Journal, “He said as long as I can hang onto the wheelchair, I’ll be fine. They were just happy.”

Last October, Bob was taken to the local hospital with pneumonia. Meanwhile, Eleanor was in and out of consciousness while seeing pictures of her new twin great grandsons. Bob, however, began recovering well in the hospital. Their pastor, Fr. Michael Geiger, administered the Anointing of the Sick to Eleanor at the nursing home, and on the same day to Bob in the hospital.

“He labored, but he made the sign of the cross and said, ‘Thank you Father,” and I said, ‘Wow,’” said Geiger.

On Thursday, October 17, at 12:26 pm, Eleanor died. Bob was told the news by his sons. According to the Mansfield News Journal: “A while later, Luke noticed his father whispered, ‘Goodbye,’ to someone across the room, but no one was there. Maybe it was Eleanor making one last check on her Bob? He said little else afterward.”

“Dad was always going to take care of Mother. When she was gone, that’s the way it went. That’s how close they were,” said their son Mike.

About 39 hours after Eleanor’s death, Bob passed away around 3:30 am on Saturday, October 19. They were both 87.

Their daughter Mary said, “I think they had a pact: If you go, I’ll go.”

Son Tom said, “The amazing thing is neither one knew what was going on with the other and they were in different facilities, and they go out together. It was such a blessing for them.”

In addition to their nine children, the couple had 32 surviving grandchildren and 26 great grandchildren.

“Their whole life was a mission to serve God the best way they can and that was by raising a family and putting them on the right path,” said Bob and Eleanor’s son Luke.

“It was a very simple, yet elegant, love between them,” their middle son, Dan, said. “I told them, ‘You guys are the pure example of what love should be.’”

Son Mike said, “They were married as a couple, lived their life as a couple and they died as a couple. They were committed to each other.”

The couple’s pastor, Fr. Michael Geiger, noted, “Bob and Eleanor in their worldview saw their faith and the mercy of Christ as foundational to the joys and sorrows of life. They see the salvation of Christ pervading all things. If the crops are good, they’re not jumping up and down, but they’re giving it up to Christ. If there is a problem, they see it as part of God’s plan. […] Nothing really fazed them. It was faith. They really espoused that.”

After the couple’s death, notebooks of Eleanor’s poetry were discovered. One poem, entitled, “Only You” gave words to the love Eleanor had for Bob:

“I cannot tell in words, dear, how much you mean to me.
I feel so safe when you are near, no troubles do I see.
I may be just a shortie, but my love for you is big and strong.
Emotions overwhelm me as I dream the whole day long.
You mean the whole wide world to me.
I love you more as time goes by. No other man can I see.
I know, my darling, I’ll love you ’till I die.”

At the conclusion of their double funeral Mass homily, Fr. Geiger read the questions asked of a couple during the wedding liturgy, asking the congregation if Bob and Eleanor “fulfilled these beautiful and solemn promises.” He concluded, “A vow made, a promise fulfilled, a family created, lives well-lived, and a legacy begun. Well done good and faithful servants, now – come share your master’s joy!”

About the author
Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Education Coordinator at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her Master’s in Theological Studies at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and her undergraduate degree in Theology and Journalism at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Emily shares the good news of the Catholic faith through writing, media appearances and speaking opportunities, which she has done on three continents. She and her husband Brad live in southeast Indiana.