Alfred and Elner Pehl of Austin will celebrate their 70th anniversary on Wednesday. The couple began dating in high school in Clarion, Iowa, in 1939. -- Matt Peterson/
Alfred and Elner Pehl of Austin will celebrate their 70th anniversary on Wednesday. The couple began dating in high school in Clarion, Iowa, in 1939. -- Matt Peterson/

Archived Story

A lifelong dedication: Couple celebrates 70 years together, countless stories

Published 10:15am Tuesday, September 10, 2013

‘Really, the secret to a happy marriage is a love of the Lord. And forgive, forgive, forgive’

On any given morning, one can find Alfred and Elner Pehl splitting a light breakfast at Hy-Vee. Later, they retire to their assigned chairs at home, where Elner keeps the thermostat perfectly dialed and makes sure Alfred has a nice blanket and something to keep his hands warm. Regardless of how it all sounds, those are just a few of the ingredients for a successful marriage that will hit the 70-year mark on Wednesday, Sept. 11. The little things really do count.

Alfred and Elner graduated from high school in Clarion, Iowa, in 1940. Now, after 70 years of marriage, Elner still remembers plenty of details, almost too much. Her stories are endless. Her memory: impeccable. She gets it from her father.

“My dad was a banker, and he had a memory like an elephant,” Elner said. “He would know your name and phone number and probably your net worth.”

Elner and Alred’s first date was on Feb. 15, 1939, after Alfred, a farmer, asked her for a date three days in a row with negative results.

“He asked me for three days, and I said, ‘No,’” Elner said.

She further joked about the man she never left: “I thought he was too big of a hick, and I was right.”

Elner finally caved, but joked that it wasn’t so much what Alfred had to offer but what others didn’t that swayed her decision.

“I looked over the availability,” she said with a grin.

On Dec. 6, 1941, after a movie date, Alfred proposed to Elner near an underground flowing well near Clarion, Iowa. It was a peaceful, romantic spot, but likely not much of a surprise. Elner had her suitor’s intentions figured out well before the proposal, when she picked up on some obvious clues during the movie. She knew he had the ring.

“I knew I was going to get it because he kept checking his pockets,” she said.

Of course, the next day was the attack on Pearl Harbor. The couple listened to the details on the radio while in the car. Alfred told Elner she may as well let him out of the car right there, as he’d be involved in some way or another. He reported for duty in Minneapolis, Elner said, and from there went to Worthington to learn how to fly. He later earned his Navy Wings and became a gunnery instructor and captain in the Marines. However, because of his military responsibilities at the time, he said he wasn’t allowed to be married. He and Elner got around that issue, but only in secrecy. A proposal the day before the Pearl Harbor attack and an anniversary during Sept. 11, 2001, don’t seem that strange to Elner. The wedding was, though.

“It’s awkward, the fact that we were secretly married,” she said.

There wasn’t much of a ceremony. The two wed in a Baptist church in Minneapolis. Each had one friend witness the occasion.

Over the years, the Pehls farmed in Clarion, Iowa, and then bought a farm near Stewartville, Minn., in 1956. They moved to Austin in 1972 and bought the trailer park near the airport, as Alfred regularly had a hand in real estate. Elner, on the other hand, nearly always had a hand in Sunday school. She taught for 50 years, including 10 years at Faith Evangelical Free Church in Austin. She didn’t stop until several years ago, when she was 84. She is still known by many as Grandma Pehl.

“My kids will still talk about her,” said Shellie Wuertz, Faith Church administrator.

Wuertz’s daughters both attended Elner’s Sunday school classes at Faith Church. Like countless others, they’ve received homemade bookmarks and knitted items from her over the years. People don’t leave Elner’s presence without taking something with them, as most know.

For some, though, the pressing question is: How can two people make a relationship last so long?

Alfred shrugged his shoulders; “Love,” he simply said.

It’s not the first time the couple has been posed such a question. People wanted to know 10 years ago.

“Somebody, on our 60th, asked me if we ever considered divorce,” Elner said, and assured them all married couples have, and then some. “Divorce, murder, suicide — and anybody who tells you otherwise is lying through their teeth.”

So what is the secret, though? According to Elner, it’s two-fold. Yet it’s simple.

“Really, the secret to a happy marriage is a love of the Lord,” she said. “And forgive, forgive, forgive.”

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