They grew up together. They dated in high school and sat next to each other at graduation. But it would take 40 years for Edie and Ralph Speer to finally wed.
Ralph’s mother died when he was 3 years old. His dad couldn’t cope, so he and his older brother lived with a series of relatives before landing with foster parents in a small town outside Des Moines, Iowa, when he was 6.
“We were the 39th and 40th boys they raised,” Ralph recalled. “We were their last.”
Shortly after their arrival, Ralph wandered over to the neighborhood grocery store next to his house, and that’s where he first saw Edie Schmidt.
“She was a cutie,” he said.
He struck up a conversation.
“He was just kicking around outside the store,” Edie said. “He came over and started visiting.”
Soon they were inseparable.
Like many children growing up in rural areas, they spent their days outdoors.
“He liked to explore, and I liked to explore,” recalled Edie. “We hunted for bugs, picked wild strawberries and rode the school bus together every day.”
They dated occasionally, but never exclusively.
“I took her to a dance,” Ralph said.
Edie laughed. “But he didn’t dance!”
After graduation, she accepted a music scholarship to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, while Ralph was thrilled to receive a scholarship to Harvard. Sadly, he was unable to use it.
“My brother was seriously injured in an accident at work. He almost died. He was paralyzed – a paraplegic,” Ralph said. “He had nobody, so I took care of him.”
He stayed in Des Moines and worked his way through Grand View University earning Bachelor of Arts in English, and eventually received a Doctor of Arts from Drake University.
Meanwhile, Edie married and ended up in Grandview, Washington, where she raised her three daughters.
Ralph married as well, and his brother, fiercely independent, learned to live on his own, and graduated from college.
Busy years ensued as Ralph taught English or journalism at eight colleges and universities across seven states. His wife gave birth to their only child, Randy, in 1968.
Following a divorce in the early 1990s, Edie went back to school.
“I earned my teaching degree at 60,” she said. “My youngest daughter graduated from high school the year I graduated from college.”
Ralph’s wife had multiple health issues, and he struggled to care for her while shouldering his teaching duties.
“It was a very difficult time,” he said.
But that difficulty paled to the tragedy that lay ahead. His son, who’d recently married and worked as a sports reporter for the Des Moines Register, died in July 2000, following complications from colon surgery. He was 31.
Six months later, Ralph’s wife died.
Family members encouraged him to return to the Des Moines area, and he did, purchasing a mobile home near where he and Edie had grown up.
He’d never forgotten her, and now he daily drove past the site of her former home (it had burned down long ago).
At the grocery store one day he ran into a friend of Edie’s who’d kept in touch with her. She told him Edie was divorced and asked if he’d like to get in touch with her.
“Is the Pope Catholic?” Ralph replied.
Soon letters began flying back and forth between Washington and Iowa, and Ralph became a fixture at the neighborhood post office where he eagerly awaited her missives.
The phone rang on his birthday, Sept. 23, 2001. It was Edie. As they talked, they both realized all the feelings they had for one another so long ago were still there.
In November, Edie flew out to join him for Thanksgiving.
He proposed at the site of her childhood home. Photos of that day show them smooching in front of their former middle school.
“It was wonderful,” Edie said.
When she broke the news of her engagement to her daughters, she said, “They were shocked. But we just knew each other so well.”
Her family had to get over the surprise quickly because there was a wedding to plan. Ralph and Edie married in Grandview on Dec. 29, 2001.
The next 17 years were filled with frequent moves as Ralph continued teaching. Five years ago they settled in the Colbert area to be near Edie’s daughter, Sharon, who has 11 of their 13 grandchildren.
Recently retired from teaching, Ralph, 76, is the pastor of Elk Community Church and Edie, 77, leads the music.
“I love serving with him at church,” she said. “I appreciate his kindness and his faith.”
“We love growing older together,” he said.
They still enjoy the outdoor pursuits they loved as youngsters, like gardening and bird watching, but Ralph’s recent health issues have curtailed their traveling adventures. He had open-heart surgery in December, and the recovery has taken longer than they’d hoped.
The experience has made Ralph appreciate Edie even more.
“She takes for better or worse very seriously,” he said.
Neither of them regrets the years they spent without each other. They feel their previous marriages have enabled them to more fully enjoy their love story that began so long ago.
“We feel God allowed us to be together again because we both needed companionship, love and healing,” Ralph said. “Our marriage has certainly done that for both of us.”
“We are just very grateful.”
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