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updated: 2/12/2018 8:33 AM

After 111 years, a very special Valentine's Day story

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  • Valentine's Day was the heart of Merle Phillips' love story with her husband, who wrote her a poem every year. Merle, left, shared her story with the Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos, right.

    Valentine's Day was the heart of Merle Phillips' love story with her husband, who wrote her a poem every year. Merle, left, shared her story with the Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos, right.
    Courtesy of the Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos

  • The Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos

    The Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos

 
By Greg Asimakoupoulos
Special to the Daily Herald

At the heart of February is Valentine's Day. It's a day for expressing love to that special someone in our lives.

Often we do that with cards, candy or flowers. I've been known to write my wife a poem and take her out for dinner at a nice restaurant.

But for those whose Valentine is no longer living, Feb. 14 can be melancholy. That's especially true for someone I met a few months ago.

Merle Phillips is the oldest person I've ever known. She will celebrate her 111th birthday in April. I made her acquaintance while attending One Church Wheaton, whose pastor is my good friend Brian Bradford.

As we turned to pass the peace, this little lady stole my heart with her signature smile. I sought her out when the worship service was over to find out more about her.

Here was a 4-foot, 10-inch giant whose life perspective towers over most everyone.

She was born six months before the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 1907 and 18 months before Henry Ford rolled out his first Model T. She was 5 when the Titanic sank. Her first president was Teddy Roosevelt.

With a sparkle in her eyes, Merle told me about her involvement in her church. With a winsome glance, she told me about the only love of her life.

Merle met Leonard at a party during graduate school in 1937 at the University of Iowa. Within a month, Leonard proposed on Valentine's Day by presenting her with an original poem.

But then I discovered how Feb. 14 became a tangible means of celebrating the heart of their romance. Every Valentine's Day, Leonard created a homemade card, something Merle looked forward to.

She wondered how this research biologist's creativity would express itself. She preserved each card in a now-faded scrapbook.

After only 30 years of marriage, Leonard was diagnosed with leukemia. Dreams of spending their retirement together were dashed.

Since they never had children, each meant everything to the other. They couldn't imagine life alone. After months of being cared for by his adoring wife, Leonard died on Feb. 13, 1968.

Losing her sweetheart the day before their special day was heartbreaking enough. Then came the realization she would not be getting his personalized expression of his love. It was almost more than Merle could take.

But the next day, as she shuffled through papers, she discovered the unexpected. Leonard had anticipated he might not be around on Valentine's Day and created a card in advance. It was in an envelope with her name on it.

Half a century after Leonard's death, Merle's eyes well with tears recalling that final Valentine. But her heart was so full of one man's love, she didn't see a need for getting married again.

Rather, she gave herself to her work as a chemistry lab worker and later as a child-care professional.

She told me that when she turned 72 she began writing self-published books. She's written 12 and many relate to life lessons learned with the love of her life at her side.

When I asked if I could have my picture taken with her, she agreed but promptly tossed her walker aside and stood as tall as her frame would allow. My smile grew even wider.

What I didn't tell Merle is that I plan to send her a card this Valentine's Day. And why not? It's the 50th anniversary of the last one she received.

• The Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos is a former Naperville resident who writes about faith and family.

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