Happily ever after
By ANDREW MCGINN
The interview was just about to get underway when Madeline Burnell’s cellphone went off.
Husband Bob was still up and around getting the coffee, so she saw no harm in answering.
It turned out to be another call about student loans.
“I just want to say, ‘Go to H,’” Madeline said afterward, hiding away her phone. “You think I have a student loan?”
Madeline Burnell is 91.
Then again, to be fair, when it comes to her relationship with Bob, she’s eternally 19.
Hair has gone white, or disappeared almost entirely in Bob’s case. Deep lines and wrinkles have long been established. Legs aren’t as strong as they were.
But while the Burnells have aged, their love hasn’t.
The Jefferson couple last week celebrated 72 years of marriage.
At a time when marriage can seem about as disposable as an iPhone — the next one is sure to have better features — 72 years seems like a lifetime.
It is, actually, and then some.
When the Burnells recited their vows on Nov. 28, 1945, at the Catholic church in Bayard, the life expectancy for males was still just 63.6 (67.9 for females).
“You can’t hardly believe it,” Madeline said of their longevity.
What’s even more remarkable is that they still live at home on Rushridge Road. If you have a couple of free hours, Bob, 92, is happy to show you all around, and he’ll even offer to send you home with some canned tomatoes.
The former Miss Madeline Hickey, for one, is glad to have come of age when she did.
She can’t imagine trying to find a partner in this day.
“Now they go online and find a boyfriend,” she observed. “That’s terrible.”
Together they brought four children into the world, and even though two were lost prematurely, Bob still finds himself referring to Madeline as “Mom,” a folksy sign of affection that even on the coldest of Iowa days radiates with warmth.
They were just simple farm kids when their eyes first met.
“I had a better smile than the other guys when I looked at Madeline and she looked at me,” Bob said.
Arguably, the secret to a long marriage is just that — keeping it simple.
Their anniversary this year happened to fall on a Tuesday, the day the local casino runs a fried chicken special.
“It’s just the best there is,” Madeline raved.
So that’s how they celebrated.
All Madeline wanted for her 91st birthday was a trip to Des Moines — to eat at Long John Silver’s.
“You could get her necklaces and rings,” Bob said, “but she would rather just have Long John Silver’s.”
Frankly, any woman who can be satisfied by the gift of hushpuppies is what you call a keeper.
With their 72nd anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Burnell reached a milestone once achieved by Mr. and Mrs. Horace Burnell, Bob’s mom and dad.
United in marriage to Elsie Dagit on Dec. 18, 1921, the elder Burnell eventually passed away in 1994, seven months shy of their 73rd wedding anniversary.
Stop and think about that: Between these two couples is 144 years (and counting) of marriage.
“Respect, respect, respect,” is Madeline’s answer to the question of longevity.
“We listened to each other and we talked,” Bob added. “And we’re very honorable to each other.”
Children of the Depression who fell for each other against the backdrop of a world war, theirs is a love story that says as much as any about a vanishing age.
On their honeymoon in Chicago, they danced to Gene Krupa and his band, even getting the dance floor all to themselves at one point.
A few years before, Bob had been the new kid at Bayard High School.
Reared in Greenbrier Twp. on a farm near Cooper, Bob was 16 when his family moved to a section of land between Bagley and Bayard.
“The war was on. There wasn’t much help,” he recalled. “I worked like heck on that section of land.”
As young as 10, Bob was being hired out to other farms.
Madeline knew hard work as well.
Her family had no boys. The three girls — two of which, Madeline and Marjorie, were identical twins — were expected to pull their own weight on the farm, and she was milking cows from the age of 8.
Come winter, though, they both played basketball, and Bayard in the ’40s was a basketball town through and through, according to Madeline.
Bob was the new boy that every girl wanted to go with, Madeline said.
“I was better looking than the other guys,” he said matter-of-factly.
For his part, Bob had his eye on just one girl: Madeline.
“I just liked how her dress fit and all that,” he said. “She always had her hair just right.
“You were a good-looking gal, Mom.”
At a school assembly one day, Bob made his move, slipping a note to Madeline as she walked by.
She promptly took the note to the bathroom and anxiously opened it. All it said was “April Fools.”
“That was it,” Bob said. “She was a hard one to catch a hold of, boy.”
Bob, it turned out, was just a little different from the other farm boys.
“He always wore a suit when he picked you up,” Madeline said.
“I never did like the look of overalls,” he added.
Bob graduated from Bayard in 1943, followed by Madeline in 1944.
He wouldn’t be drafted for military service until the war was over — and by that point, the Army had so many men, they sent him back home to the farm.
It was nevertheless a difficult time in which to grow up.
“Every movie you went to was about war,” Madeline said.
Harold Bryan, a Greenbrier boy who worked on the Burnell farm, had enlisted in the Navy and was killed in action.
On the farm, Bob very nearly worked himself to death.
One summer while shocking oats, he tried to keep up with the beefy hired man and ended up suffering a ruptured appendix, an often-fatal malady in those days.
“Only about one out of 50 made it,” Bob said.
For nearly two weeks, Madeline spent her days with her boyfriend at the hospital in Jefferson.
Soon after, they were engaged.
“I was ready and willing,” she said.
They started their family in 1947 with son Richard, who now farms the family’s land near Paton — Bob is still willing to haul beans “if they’ll let me.”
Their relationship, and even their faith, was put to the ultimate test with the death of daughter Patricia at age 13 from the kidney disease once known as Bright’s disease.
“You were just empty,” Madeline said. “She was like a little angel.”
Madeline’s beautician in Paton wrote to Washington, D.C., about Patty’s health struggles. In response, President John F. Kennedy, a young father himself, wrote to Patty wishing her well.
Patty was in seventh grade when she succumbed to illness in March 1963.
The Burnells would be tested again in 1999 when son Ronald took his own life at age 50.
A 1966 graduate of Jefferson Community High School, Ronald was a gifted cinematographer in Des Moines who had adopted the name Busby — in honor of Busby Berkeley, the director whose beautifully choreographed musicals for Warner Bros. in the 1930s epitomize Old Hollywood glamour.
Bob never stopped calling him Ron, which aggravated Busby’s wife.
Like any father who loses a child to suicide, Bob is left to wonder where things went so wrong.
“Why didn’t I do more for that boy?” he finds himself thinking. “I feel like I could have done more.”
One thing is certain: Bob and Madeline made a vow to each other 72 years ago to have and to hold each other, for better or for worse, and they’ve made good on that.
A few times over.
“I never would’ve ended up with another woman like Mama,” Bob said. “If every man could get a woman like her, it would be a different world.”