Cupid comes calling 65 years later
Couple rekindles romance decades after their first and only date
Published: Sunday, January 2, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 11:09 p.m.
Sitting by the fireplaces between rows of blooming Christmas cactuses, Aurelia "Chick" Wallace and Phil Newman can't help but smile as they talk about their improbable romance.
"I was a gone gosling from the first hug," says 79-year-old Chick.
"I was gone before that, I just didn't know it," adds 81-year-old Phil.
Chick is proudly wearing Phil's silver wings, earned as a B-17 pilot, on her sweater and his 1941 Greensboro (N.C.) Senior High School ring on her left hand. Officially they are "engaged," living together in Gainesville, with no immediate plans for marriage because of all the complications in legally bringing together two separate households.
Phil's daughter Phyllis sits across the room wearing a smile that matches that of the two sweethearts who've come together nearly 65 years after their first and only date.
"If God put them together, that's enough for anybody," Phyllis says.
Their story begins in the 1930s in the small rural community of Pinecroft, N.C., where Phil's grandparents and Chick's parents lived as across-the-road neighbors. Officially she's Aurelia, a name she jokes that she shares with the mothers of Julius Caesar and Arnold Schwarzenegger and a variety of jellyfish. But at birth she weighed only three pounds, and her father, a romance-language professor, nicknamed her Chiquitissima, Spanish for tiniest little girl. That was boiled down to Chick before she ever left the fur-lined orange crate that served as her cradle. And Chick she is today.
In the summers, Phil would stay with his grandparents and would swim and play tennis with the little girl who lived across the road. In the winter, they would sled together, and she can still recall the time they went skating together. She tells how he heroically slid on his belly onto the thin ice and used his jacket to extend his reach to rescue his cousin who'd fallen through the ice into the icy pond. They were buddies, but not sweethearts then.
"I was pretty much shy in those days. I've outgrown that since," he says.
But he eventually did work up the nerve to ask her out one time. He was 16, she was 14, and he invited her to go to a high-school football game.
"We were confined to the rumble seat of a 1929 Ford roadster," he says.
There was the game, followed by a stop at the West End Creamery for milk shakes. She got chocolate, he got vanilla, and he shelled out 45 cents to cover the tab.
"I carried her home and didn't even kiss her good night," he says.
While they graduated from high school together, their lives went in different directions. For Chick, it was off to the University of Georgia, where she'd earned a scholarship to study journalism. It was there that she met her future husband, Al Wallace, a Navy veteran who'd been medically discharged for what was originally and falsely diagnosed as tuberculosis. After two years in a hospital, he recovered enough to go to college and gained fame as the first U.S. veteran to enter college under the G.I. Bill.
They soon had the distinction of being the first husband and wife to be registered at the University of Georgia.
She earned a master's degree in journalism from Georgia and would later teach at North Carolina State University, while Al was enrolled there earning a Ph.D. in agronomy, with a specialty in statistical genetics. They came to Gainesville in 1950, where he taught at the University of Florida, and she would later teach at Santa Fe Community College. They had three children. The oldest, Alvin "Skippy" Wallace, was hit by a car and killed when he was three. Son Bob Wallace founded and operates Chestnut Hill Farm and Nursery near Alachua. Daughter Kay Snow is a computer whiz working with Disney in Orlando.
Chick still lives in the home she and Al moved into in 1960. They were living there in 1971 when Al died of cancer.
"I designed it," she says, looking around the living room of the home. "It's as functional now with 10 guests as it was with a husband and two babies in it."
Soon after his high-school graduation, Phil left North Carolina for a job in a New Jersey defense plant. He later joined the Army Air Corps not long after World War II started. While in training to become a B-17 pilot, he met Blanche Triska, who was working on the base in Stuttgart, Ark. They were later married at Drew Field, the air base that would later grow into Tampa International Airport.
After the wedding, it was off to the war, flying 40 combat missions from North Africa and from a base in Fossia, Italy, and 23 humanitarian missions after the war ended. After coming back stateside, Phil briefly tried working in his father-in-law's rice-farming operation, but they headed back to North Carolina, where he and Blanche settled in Reidsville, N.C. He opened a wholesale communications business, selling electronics, radios and computers, and he and Blanche raised their two kids, Phyllis and Tim.
After retiring from business, Phil continued to care for Blanche, who suffered from heart problems, and was active with veterans' groups in the area. He helped found Combat Airmen of World War II, an organization of 80 to 90 members who would visit schools in North Carolina and Virginia and share their personal views of history with students in high schools and middle schools.
In 1991, the two buddies who once shared a rumble seat for a single date met again at their high school's 50th class reunion.
Chick, who'd then been a widow for more than 20 years, says "I had to physically restrain myself from jumping into his arms." But there was no romance that evening, just reminiscing and lots of catching up.
"We kind of marveled at how we'd grown older," she says.
After that, there was a Christmas card the next year and then no contact at all until Chick dropped Phil a note in September of 2003. She was working on "Growing Up Tar Heel," a book about their old neighborhood, and sent him some questions, hoping to pick up a few needed details for the story.
He sent a note with the answers she was seeking, along with word that Blanche, his wife of 59 years, was dying. They spoke on the phone a month later when she died.
Phyllis says her father went into a deep depression when her mother died. He wouldn't even return to their home, but moved in with her and Tim in Winston-Salem, N.C., and began drinking. But she also noticed he started spending time on the phone with Chick.
"It wasn't romantic, it was friendship. I knew what it was like to lose a mate," Chick says.
There were more calls, more letters, and healing care rolled in long distance.
"I could see a difference in him; he was more like his old self," Phyllis says. "He was more interested in a life outside of my living room."
Last March, Chick offered an invitation for Phil to come visit Gainesville. Neither of them knew it then, but as she waited at the airport terminal gate, Cupid was there in the crowd. Their hugs of welcome while waiting on luggage were so sweet and so heartfelt, a stranger waiting nearby stepped up and snapped a photo. The woman with the camera could see what the two were already starting to figure out.
He stayed for two weeks, and they fell in love. He went back home, stayed two weeks, packed up and came back to stay. He's since fallen in love with his new hometown.
"I learned not to pass up a good opportunity," he says with a grin. "I grabbed the gold ring right then."
In the seven months since, they've gotten to know each other even better.
"I've found him to be the kindest, most gentle, generous-hearted person I've ever known, second only to my mother," Chick says.
Phil says he's been amazed by her tolerance.
"I had no idea anybody would ever appreciate me again," he says, beaming at her.
Gary Kirkland can be reached at (352) 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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