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Growing old together: Heetlands celebrate joint 90th birthdays

Gladys and Eldon Heetland sit on the sofa in their rural Ocheyedan, Iowa, home, where they have lived all their married life -- 68 years.(Beth Rickers/Daily Globe)1 / 2
The Heetland clan -- all five of Gladys and Eldon's children and many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- gathers Sunday to celebrate the 90th birthdays. (submitted photo)2 / 2

OCHEYDAN, Iowa -- Last weekend's sleet and snow might have cancelled local church services, but it didn't stop Eldon and Gladys Heetland from celebrating their joint birthdays.

The Heetlands, who both turned 90 on Sunday, planned to have a reception between services at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Worthington, followed by a meal with their extended family. The inclement weather only changed the location of the party, which moved to a local hotel before the ice on the roads got too thick.

"We had a lovely party at the AmericInn," explained Eldon.

"It was probably a better party than if we'd had good weather," added Gladys, "just because we were all together."

Eldon and Gladys' story begins on Feb. 20, 1921 -- the date they were both born, she at her parents' (Hromatko) house in Lake Wilson, he at his parents' house in Ackley, Iowa. But their paths wouldn't cross until 15 years later, when Eldon's parents became renters on the Ocheyedan, Iowa, farm that was owned by Gladys' parents. And it was a few more years until they had their first date.

"Her brother didn't like the guy she was going with, so he asked me to take her out and get her mind off this other guy," Eldon recalled. "But he didn't figure I was going to marry her."

Their first date, in 1942, was to the Nobles County Fair, and her brother's ploy worked, because soon they were seeing each other exclusively, although gas rationing meant they had to keep their courting pretty close to home. It became evident that they were meant to spend their lives together.

"I never proposed to her, never asked her to marry me," said Eldon.

"We both just took it for granted, mutual agreement," said Gladys.

They were married June 13, 1943, at the home of Gladys' parents in Lake Wilson. She wore a rose-colored dress, and Eldon donned a blue suit -- both outfits remain in the family today.

"I had to go pick up the cake," Eldon recalled about their wedding day. "The road was real rough, and one side of the cake totally slipped down."

Their married life began -- and continues today -- at the farm in rural Ocheyedan.

It was wartime, and like most young men of the era, Eldon had been compelled to serve his country. He took flying lessons courtesy of the U.S. Navy and was one of five young pilots out of 25 candidates to make the cut, headed to the Marines. But his status was frozen because his family had a herd of cows, and Uncle Sam felt his place was to remain on the farm.

Eldon reluctantly stayed behind and continued to exchange letters with the rest of the pilots who went on to serve in the war.

"One after another, the letters came back to me, 'address unknown.' They were all killed," shared Eldon. "If I had gone, we probably wouldn't be here today."

And although he loved flying, Eldon never got in the cockpit of a plane again.

"I fell in love with her," Eldon said, nodding his head at Gladys, "and I decided I wasn't going to divide my love, so I never flew again."

So Eldon kept his feet firmly on the farm, raising corn, soybeans, feeder cattle, sheep and a lot of hogs.

"We also raised some chickens for the hatchery at one time, then a guy brought a disease in, and we haven't had chickens since," Eldon said. "When we first moved out here, this farm was a mess -- 40 acres of it was mud. What a mess. I'd have to go out on a horse and rope the cattle to get them out of the mud. We tiled it ... and it's a much better farm than it was."

The house itself is a Sears Roebuck structure, the materials all ordered straight out of the catalog, Gladys noted, referring to a book that was written by the daughter of the original owner.

"This old house is almost 100 years old, but I've been here -- what -- 75 years? A lot of this house's life has been here with me," said Eldon, adding that they've made a lot of improvements to the structure over the years, including insulation, siding and additions. "It's not the same house it was. It was a cold house. It was so cold upstairs that when we'd go to sleep, we'd cover our faces, just leaving a hole to breathe through, and we'd have to break off the ice from that hole in the morning."

In addition to farming, Eldon spent about 10 years as a salesman for Sears in Worthington, specializing in home improvement items.

"I had one gentleman who had eight grandkids, and he'd buy an old house and fix it up for them, and I'd sell him all the furnishings."

Gladys was a housewife, raising their five children -- Stephen, Adra, Nona, Sidney and Gaylon -- now scattered around the country. They have 16 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.

All five of their children and many extended family members -- hailing from Texas, Mississippi, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota -- were on hand Sunday for Eldon and Gladys' big 90th birthday bash. When it became apparent that the weather was going to cause travel problems, the whole clan moved to the AmericInn, leaving only the couple's cat behind on the farm. With four pastors in the family, even the cancelled church service wasn't a problem -- they had their own at the hotel.

Just having most of their family together was a special occasion for the Heetlands.

"That was the best gift -- and a blessing, too," said Gladys.

Although they've had some minor health problems and getting around gets tougher by the day, Eldon and Gladys also feel blessed to continue to live in the place they've always called home, and Eldon plans to stay put there as long as they are able.

"My mind is not as good as it used to be," he reflected, "but I'm thankful the Lord has let me keep as much as I have."

Sharing a birth date with a spouse makes it easy to remember, Eldon noted about the birthdays he and Gladys have celebrated together over the last 68 years, although on at least one occasion it caused some confusion.

"When we sent in our first tax return to the IRS, they sent it back. They said, 'You made a mistake. You've got only one birth date instead of two,'" he recalled. "I wrote back and said, 'This is the way it is. Do you want me to divorce my wife?' I never heard back from them again. Some people don't think I'm funny."

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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