VAN PETTEN – Down an old back road, 90 miles west of Chicago, love is alive and well for Dave and Babe Brandon.
But there will be no Hallmark cards, no jewelry or trinkets shared between them on Valentine’s Day. The two rarely exchange gifts.
“We’re rich,” Dave said.
“We have all we ever want,” Babe added.
“We are happy and content … don’t need anything more than that,” he adds. “But I do, once in a while, buy her chocolates in a nice heart-shaped box.”
Smiles cross their faces, as he adds, “She doesn’t like chocolate – but I do.”
The couple, married for 62 years, say a long-lasting marriage isn’t so much about candies and cards, or the give and take most people believe in.
“It’s all about the adventure,” they say in unison with raised brows and broad smiles.
Babe added, “We’ve been on a lot of adventures together.”
Their journey began in 1936, when they were just 3 and 4. Her uncle married his aunt.
At the outdoor reception, all of the children played together. Photos in her family album show the two side by side.
At 7 years old, they made their Holy Communion together, and again they are pictured together.
“We were by each other’s side all of the time,” he said.
“We still are,” she said, patting his arm as she sat next to him.
Dave’s family moved from town to town, while Babe’s remained in VanPetten, which is in Lee County.
They would see one another from time to time while visiting the aunt and uncle.
“We’d go out in the bean field, looking for bugs,” she said. “We’d play together all the time. We still do.”
Fourteen years would pass before they fell in love.
Occasional family functions brought them together in their early years, ultimately coming to an end as they grew older. Despite both families living in neighboring rural Lee and Whiteside counties their entire childhoods, Dave’s family moved so often they never went to school together – until their senior year of high school.
She began, “He walked into the homeroom …”
“I was walking along, minding my own business, and this gal dragged me into the bushes!” he joked.
Laughing, she said: “That’s not exactly what happened. I saw him walk in, and I nudged my girlfriend and said, ‘I’m gonna get that bugger.’ I just knew I would. And I did.”
As 17-year-olds, they didn’t realize they had met before. It wasn’t until their courtship was official and she took him to meet her family that her last name clicked, and he realized Babe was the same little girl he used to hunt bugs with years earlier.
“That’s what ya call kismet,” Dave said.
They’ve been inseparable ever since.
What has made it work for all those years is their understanding, communication, adventure-seeking personalities and, of course, their love.
“It isn’t no 50-50; it’s 100 percent,” Babe said. “Sometimes you’re the one giving 100 percent, and sometimes it’s him. Even if one of you does something wrong, you have to try to understand and hope that when you make a mistake – and you will, we all do – that he’ll understand, too.”
He said he and his wife are as “different as night and day,” but talk all the time and thoroughly enjoy one another’s company. Whether discussing the daily news or strolling down memory lane, he said, “She listens good.”
“Oh, and the home cooking,” Dave said, rubbing his stomach. “That’s real fine too, maybe a little too fine.”
When they walk, they are still hand in hand. When they watch TV, they still snuggle up on the couch. When they go to bed each night and wake in the morning, they share kisses.
“We always have,” he said.
“We always will,” she added.
Never too much togetherness
The Brandons met in 1936 and began dating when they were 17. Now, at 82, they reminisce about their lives and adventures together.
Their first job together was working on the farm of Babe’s father. But Dave was having a hard time under her father’s harsh working conditions.
With the weight of the world on his shoulders, without a plan, he simply asked whether she wanted to take off and head out west.
“I said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’” she recalled.
They packed up their four children – David Jr., Stan, and their adopted daughters Tracy, and Kim – along with their meager belongings, and drove westward before landing in Montana.
They bought a grocery store and worked day and night. But because the town was small and the store was across the street from the firehouse, they were told by the previous owner that they would also have to respond to fire calls.
Ready for the challenge, they manned the station together. Dave became chief and Babe was his assistant on the volunteer department.
They traveled to Yellowstone National Park in 1988 to help fight the historic fire.
One day they decided to sell the store and seek another adventure. Staying in Montana, they bought an orchard with cherry and apple trees. They learned about grafting and beekeeping, adding those skills to their growing résumés.
No matter the job at hand, they were together, even during their short stint as lumberjacks.
“She wasn’t too good with a chainsaw,” Dave said with a chuckle.
They ended up selling the orchard and buying the old store again, where they worked for several more years before finding their way back home.
Fourteen years ago, they came back to VanPetten. The entire 130-acre town is all theirs, passed down from her family.
Living in a town with a population of 2 could make adventures hard to come by, but not for the Brandons.
As the sole proprietors, they have built a library in the upstairs of their home, and a museum in the lower level.
The third Sunday of each month, they host a “hammer-in” for blacksmith enthusiasts at their home shop.
At 82, Babe effortlessly swings an 8-pound hammer, acting as Dave’s apprentice. Together they show visitors how to build “anything and everything” out of iron.
“If you can dream it, we can make it,” he said. “A blacksmith can fix everything, except the crack of dawn and a broken heart.”
Their monthly hammer-ins keeps old friends and new people stopping by regularly.
In their tiny town, they share mayoral responsibilities, alternating every 6 months. Babe will be mayor again in May, on her 83rd birthday. Since November, 82-year-old Dave has been at the helm.
There have been rough roads along their journey, they admit. “It’s nothing we couldn’t get through,” he said.
When they were 50 years old, Babe was sick. Over 4 months, she grew weaker. Dave watched helplessly, asking what he could do to help.
She’d wave him away, saying she was fine. When she could no longer walk or speak, he sat at the edge of the bed beside her, took her face into his hands, looked her in the eyes and said: “I know what’s wrong with you. You’re dying!”
With that, he scooped her up, carried her to the car, and took her to the hospital. She was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome.
“It is kind of like polio; she was paralyzed,” he said, never taking his eyes off her. “It took her 6 weeks to learn how to walk again. I’d take her hands, help her stand, I’d walk backward, with her hands in mine, and she’d take steps forward."
Smiling at his wife, Dave said: “I enjoyed it all. I’d go back and do it all again. Wouldn’t you, honey?”
“You bet your bippy I would!”
Their motto is, “You learn something new every day, and you don’t sit in the shade of your own tree.”