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A 60-year love story

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Leroy Reinagel hasn't seen his wife in 10 years.

But Bernice makes sure she sees him every day.

Leroy went blind during a church service in 1996, a year after suffering a stroke. Leroy was at church and couldn't find his pew. He had to ask someone to help him find it because his vision started blacking out. After church was over, he had to ask for help finding his truck.

That was the last day Leroy saw his wife and children through his own eyes.

Bernice took care of her husband at their home in Kelso until 2002, when she could no longer provide the assistance he needed. They decided Leroy would go to live at Chateau Girardeau, an assisted living facility, in Cape Girardeau. Bernice wanted to continue living at the couple's home in Kelso.

Every single day since then, one or the other of the Reinagels' five children has driven Bernice -- doesn't drive anymore -- to Cape Girardeau to see Leroy. She usually arrives before noon and remains until he has had his supper.

The couple has no special plans for Valentine's Day, except perhaps a few more 'I love yous.' Just like they do every day, they'll spend it together talking and laughing, listening to country music.

Theirs is a love story more than 60 years old.

Though Leroy isn't able to see Bernice's beautiful smile anymore, he still remembers the first time he saw it at a Benton Neighbor Day picnic in 1944.

Bernice had come to the annual community picnic with her family from New Hamburg. Leroy had traveled with his family from Kelso.

"It was probably love at first sight," said Bernice. Both were about 17.

The two teenagers started dating. At the time, Bernice was working in a factory, and Leroy was farming with his father. Every Saturday night, Leroy would travel to New Hamburg to visit her.

"We had bingo on those nights, and then afterward there would be a dance," Bernice said.

Leroy soon fell "head-over-heels" in love with Bernice.

Less than a year after their meeting, Leroy asked Bernice to marry him. The two were married on April 2, 1945, at St. Lawrence Church in New Hamburg.

Leroy was drafted by the Army and left for Fort Lewis, Wash., on their first anniversary. Bernice was left alone at the couple's home.

"I didn't know what to do, where to go," Bernice said. "I was by myself again."

The following July she moved to Tacoma, Wash., to be near her husband.

They've been almost inseparable ever since. After Leroy got out of the service the couple moved back to Missouri and bought a house in New Hamburg. They had five children -- Roxanna, Tom, Allen, Ray and Kenny.

In 1973 they built a house in Kelso and opened up the Kelso Supply store. Leroy and Bernice worked side-by-side at the store until retiring in the 1980s. The Reinagels' oldest son, Tom, and his brother, Ray, took over the supply store.

"They were together most of the time when we were growing up," Tom Reinagel said of his parents. "If my dad would go to the lumber yard, my mom would go. If he went to the paint store, she would go with him. They went everywhere with each other."

They traveled as often as they could, exploring places like Hawaii and Santo Domingo. They went to country music concerts and sailed the ocean on cruise ships.

"We were always together," Bernice said. "Wherever the car or truck would go, we were in it together."

It seemed nothing could slow the Reinagels down.

Leroy's stroke and blindness did. But Bernice wasn't yet ready to leave the family home.

It's not the same without Leroy around. "I miss him because there's no one else at home but me," she said.

"But you have Duke," Leroy corrected her. Duke is Leroy's sight dog, a Schnauzer who still lives with Bernice.

"It's not the same," Bernice replied. "It's sometimes hard to go home at night and walk into the empty house."

Tom Reinagel said his parents' best relationship advice was to stick together through good and bad times. He admires their relationship, which remains strong as it ever has been.

"We've tried to talk mom into taking a day or two off, but she won't," he said of his mother's devotion to his father.

On this Valentine's Day, Bernice will be at Leroy's side while they listen to country music. They will talk and laugh, probably watch some television. Bernice will help feed Leroy his dinner at 6:30 p.m. and then kiss him good-bye until tomorrow comes.

"My only wish is that he could be at home with me, and that he could see again," Bernice said. "But we live with it and make the best of it. We do what we have to do to make it through."

jfreeze@semissourian.com

335-6611 extension 246


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