By MARY RICHE
DES MOINES, Iowa, Sept. 2, 2022 — I got married this morning. The groom, Chuck Offenburger, is a septuagenarian. So am I. We were friends for 47 years before we fell in love and decided to spend the rest of our lives together, however long that might be, as husband and wife.
He’s also a widower, as most people know. Some may not know that I’ve been divorced for more than two decades. Or that his late wife was a good friend of mine, and I gave the eulogy at her funeral, at her request. The three of us shared many happy times together, and we also shared indescribable sadness in her final years.
This is a very personal story about love and marriage. It’s filled with hope and happiness – both seem to be in short supply these days — and shares the optimism that’s embedded in my personality. It’s also an example of my nimbleness to adapt to “Plan B,” a skill learned during my rural upbringing when the weather forecast turned out to be wrong.
I’ve labeled my retirement years as Act III of my life. Who knew that my personal Plan B would include love and marriage? I sure didn’t, until a few months ago.
Newlyweds Chuck Offenburger and Mary Riche, before the ceremony, in a recent photo by our friend Pam Kenyon.
I’m not a writer, though I’m now married to one. My husband (feels funny to write this and even funnier to say it) and I have both made our professional livings as communicators, though I’m nervous as I share publicly this much personal information. This is a new way for me to communicate.
He continues to write and has quite a following of fans, including me. I’m now retired as a psychotherapist, a licensed social worker, after almost 30 years in private practice. I’ve been self-employed all but the first eight years of my career. I owned a business, a PR and marketing firm; before that I worked in politics – for candidates, issue campaigns, and the public sector. I’m what you might call an independent woman and more comfortable listening to clients than baring my soul.
However, I’m willing to lay open my heart and share my feelings about this wondrous adventure in hopes it will give one other person the knowledge that such love and happiness can happen to you!
Early on, a favorite minister at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, our church, used “blissed out” in one of her sermons, and Chuck grabbed that term to describe what was happening to both of us. It did seem to capture our emotions. Plus, our faith, important to us both, has played a significant role in leading us to each other – and to today’s vows. It forms the foundation that steadies us and keeps us mindful of the blessing we have in each other and this relationship.
Perhaps you’ve also read the recent popular books by Delia Ephron and Amy Bloom that vividly describe falling in love later in life, and how each of their marriages included physical catastrophes that caused my heart to ache. What our love affair shares with those marriages is a beginning that was every bit as exciting, nowhere near as complicated, and interestingly, not a surprise to the folks who know us best.
Our pal Kyle Munson, former Iowa columnist for the Des Moines Register, served as our official witness when we applied for and received our marriage license. (Photo by Pam Kenyon)
For me, it was like a lightning bolt when I realized this “man friend” was also a “man” as our relationship shifted to serious love. Once our feelings were out in the open, we were both gobsmacked by this reality though it seemed I was more shocked than he was. Might be one of those relationship differences in men and women as he seemed ready to move on to the next level quicker than I was.
I was further surprised, pleasantly, to discover that this writer was able to speak and articulate his feelings – a skill that often eludes many men, as I learned in my years as a therapist. He excelled at expressing himself, especially about us. And he loved to talk. And tell stories. Lots of stories.
I was now spending all my time with a man who could and would talk about his feelings. And he understood about the need for personal boundaries. I was smitten.
I kept marveling at the changes in this happily contented single woman – me – who had not visualized a co-star in Act III of her life. Now, I had feelings I had not known for years. I was behaving like a giddy, starstruck teenager, and probably a bit obnoxious with my ear-to-ear grin that was ever-present. I was in love.
New pair of saddle shoes in this family. (Photo by Pam Kenyon)
Even better, those feelings were mutual and growing. We were together all the time, planning a future that would upend both our lives, and include today’s wedding ceremony.
Jeepers, this was an unexpected change that was barely a year in the making. Is my optimism showing?
On the other hand, when you’re our age, have known each other almost 50 years, and have a deep-rooted understanding of how precious time is (and how unknown the future is), getting married no longer sounds unwise or impulsive. We were 75 years old (for the record, I’m 74 until late November), with an incredible ability to laugh at ourselves as we talked about the future – and our matching barnacle and bunions.
Our lives, personally and professionally, have intersected numerous times these past decades. Here are some that stand out to me.
We share a genuine fondness for our rural home counties – his in Page and mine in Buchanan, though he was a “town” kid, and I was a “country” kid. We’ve both worked most of the other 98 counties in this state for our jobs, and those experiences have deepened a regard for our Iowa heritage.
We each had an early interest in journalism as a career — he was a teenage sports reporter for the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel; I was a teenage broadcaster for KOEL radio in Oelwein. He wanted to someday own a newspaper; I wanted to replace Barbara Walters.
Chuck and Mary both fell a little short of their journalism goals and are now happy about that. (Photo by Pam Kenyon)
Immediately after high school, we attended college and received undergraduate degrees to prepare us for journalism — his in political science at Vanderbilt University where he was the editor of the Vandy Hustler and mine in journalism at the University of Iowa. I was only a short-term reporter at the Daily Iowan because I was also getting my teaching degree in journalism. (I never taught.)
We both love music, and we’ve been making it figuratively and literally the past several months. In high school, he was selected a baritone in the All-State Chorus for three years. I also sing, as an alto, though I was selected, only once, for the All-State Band playing my alto saxophone. Most recently, we’ve been singing in the summer choir at Plymouth Church, though the range of our voices has changed considerably.
I’ve been playing the piano since I started taking lessons at the age of four. As a sight-reader pianist – which makes me a lousy party guest because I don’t play “by ear” – I can usually bumble my way through most sheet music tunes though anything with more than two sharps almost paralyzes me.
At first, I was embarrassed to play in front of him. That’s when I first realized something was changing in our friendship. I was nervous and didn’t want to hit any sour notes!
Now, our nightly routine in our Jefferson apartment or Des Moines home often includes music, and me at the piano and him on the piano bench singing, which is sheer delight. This is so special it’s almost magical to me – and gets included in my daily prayers of gratitude.
Music fans at a Lyle Lovett concert in Cedar Rapids this summer.
Physically, we are both athletic – him more than me. We each grew up playing ball, as left-handed batters even though we are both right-handed writers! He was a star catcher on Shenandoah High’s winning baseball team. I played front yard softball with my family every Sunday after church, though the highlight of my short sports career was scoring 31 points in junior high school during a girls’ basketball game. I was short, pretty fast, decent with a pump fake, and accurate with a lay-up!
By the time we first met, in 1974 when we were in our mid-20s, we were both working in jobs that were memorable for different reasons. He liked his as a general assignment reporter at the Des Moines Register; his years as the Iowa Boy columnist and feature writer wouldn’t happen for another three years.
I was conflicted about mine. I was a 25-year-old woman being challenged in a job that toughened my hide as a feminist, sharpened my political skills, and taught me valuable lessons that remain with me today.
I had returned to Iowa from Washington, D.C. where I worked in the press office for U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson III, and I was now press secretary for the Democratic candidate for governor who had won that three-way primary and was my ticket back home. Chuck had been assigned by Jim Flansburg, the Register’s political editor and columnist, to write a story.
Chuck remembers most of that day, and I’ve learned he has a memory that is unmatched, certainly by me. I remember little about that day, including him, though his recollections jogged mine about the campaign, specifically my role as press secretary.
As a vocal feminist, I spent those months as spokesperson for a man who was not willing to publicly support many important women’s issues of the day even as he professed his support for equality.
I would speak on my candidate’s behalf, biting the inside of my cheek until it bled sometimes, as I represented his positions.
Here is some of what I learned:
–I discovered the significance of substantive policy changes through legislation and regulations, even as the focus at that time was on candidates and their campaigns. I learned I could wage a powerful argument for my positions, in private campaign meetings if I was sitting at the table where decisions were made, and still lose a debate. And I learned that an inch of progress was better than no progress, even through clenched teeth while my stomach bile was gurgling up my throat.
–Sadly, I learned how much compromise could hurt, even in the name of progress. And I learned stamina, which sustains me as I continue to work during today’s cultural and social battles for candidates and on issues that align with my values. Regrettably, that stomach bile returned with a fervor in 2016.
Back to the topic of Chuck’s memory. He can retrieve facts about the people, places, and events of this state like no other! I’ve secretly googled some of those facts, and he’s never been wrong! It’s as unbelievable to me as it is endearing. So far, I find it adorable.
There’s been a whole lot of love and fun lately at Mary’s home in Des Moines. (Photo by Pam Kenyon)
Our professional paths continued to cross during his years as the Iowa Boy and mine as a PR person. He came to know my parents in northeast Iowa, even better than I knew, until recently, and as he might tell you in his column. Over the years, we both had career changes. I returned to graduate school for my master’s degree in social work; he taught at the college level and continued to write. We never lost touch.
Our personal paths kept intersecting too, always as friends, too often around his health. Early in his younger adult life, Chuck made significant physical changes that saved his life. He ducked death one more time in 2009, when he survived a terminal cancer diagnosis, thanks to a great team of physicians — and a life-saving stem cell transplant at the University of Iowa. I was a visitor at each of those hospitals, and my memory is clear about those difficult visits.
I’ve been luckier with my health because my parents passed on some good DNA genes. My mother played tennis into her 80s, though I witnessed, firsthand, the disruption and slow death that chronic disease had on my dad. After college, I began my intentional focus on wellness and choices recognizing the connectedness of mind, body, and spirit. That includes saying those daily prayers of gratitude I mentioned earlier.
Chuck and I are compatible (and lucky) to share similar levels of energy, which allows us to feed our individual, almost insatiable curiosities at a pace that would tire many. Neither of us has chosen to sit on the sidelines of life. Thus, our schedule, now shared and displayed on a combined digital calendar, is full of commitments important to each and both of us.
We also share incredible, individual reservoirs of resilience. His certainly has been demonstrated through his various health scares, and I’ve landed upright more than a few times through lots of challenges. We each recognize what a blessing that resilience has been throughout our individual lives. Again, I include our energy and resilience in my daily prayers of gratitude.
Lest this story sounds too perfect, let me assure you that we have moments when we do a fabulous imitation of James Carville and Mary Matalin – the political couple who have been married forever despite their opposing political positions on certain issues. Chuck and I have gone a few rounds, verbally, about a certain topic. In the end, we come down on the same side. I learned a long time ago, as I mentioned earlier, that compromise can be painful.
We’ve each married and divorced in overlapping time periods. We are both parents and stepparents, he to a son and stepdaughter. Me to a stepson. He’s also a grandparent to three granddaughters and one grandson. Any reader who follows Chuck’s writing knows a whole lot about him, his family and personal history.
Probably most important to this relationship is our shared, deeply personal faith. I grew up attending church and Sunday School every Sunday because my mother was in charge of religion in our house. My dad supported her fully, and always attended – unless the weather made fieldwork an acceptable excuse. (I think he was more worried about my mother’s wrath than God’s.)
I’ve been a member of Plymouth Church since the early ’80s when I became close friends with their woman pastor. I embraced its progressive theology with its traditional music and hymns accompanied on a pipe organ that knocked off my socks. Chuck is now an official, more recent member of Plymouth Church, after attending for 30 years and membership most of his life in the Catholic Church.
Our faith has been an ever-present foundation in our lives as individuals, and it now serves as the bedrock for our marriage. We worship weekly and pray daily. Its value is personal, and we don’t wear it on our sleeves. We also don’t hide it.
I’ve always believed my guardian angel has guided and protected me. Today, I believe that’s the Holy Spirit constantly swirling around me, and I speak that belief without cringing. Or preaching.
Wow! (Photo by Pam Kenyon)
Our marriage ceremony this morning included vows to make future incremental changes as we devote more time to being together, traveling and having those adventures other retired people rave about. After all, we are septuagenarians!
The ceremony was civil, small and private though in the rotunda of the Iowa State Capitol, a site with special meaning to us. The officiant was our friend, retired Judge Janet Johnson, the first woman appointed to the Iowa Court of Appeals. We wrote our vows, exchanged wedding bands, and said “I do.” It was meaningful beyond words.
We will receive a blessing during the Word and Table service at Plymouth Church on Sunday, Sept. 4. I have no doubt this will be as close to perfection as possible.
My husband is self-confident, yet there’s not a cocky bone in his body. He understands himself in a way that exudes self-awareness. He knows who he is and is comfortable with that knowledge. He knows where he comes from, and how he got here — traits I’ve always found appealing.
When I questioned him about how he got so comfortable revealing so much of his personal history in columns and stories to readers, his answer stopped me in my tracks.
“I ask people questions, sometimes tough personal questions, and they tell me their stories,” he said. “It only seems fair that I share with readers the stories of what’s going on in my life. I’ve learned they will stick by you if you’re honest with them.”
So, he’ll write honestly about our marriage and possibly more about our life together as it unfolds. I admit there’s been something cathartic as I composed this column about our relationship and today’s wedding.
If I continue to write about our life together or other topics, I promise to write honestly as well.
Our friends know us well. Kitty Stoner sent us a card saying “Oh Happy Day,” and Artis Reis and Mark Smith gave us this pillow. (Photo by Pan Kenyon)
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