Severna Park couple marking their 75th wedding anniversary

Passing time's tests

August 11, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

Charles and Elsie Dehne met at a late 1920s social gathering. She was 15, but told him she was his age, 16 - "and never been kissed," she added, flirting a bit. So he kissed her. She slapped him.

Two years later, the Baltimore teenagers eloped to Washington and the Eastern Shore on a weekend away from work, taking a train and then a ferry. They looked in a telephone book for a minister to marry them.

But it was that first encounter, showing the demure one could hold her own against his self-confidence, that set a tone lasting a lifetime.

Now they are in their 90s. And on Sunday, they will mark 75 years of marriage with a splash near their small white house in Severna Park.

She'll wear a long pink dress to the party, and he will look like, as he puts it, "a big wheel, a man of the world."

In a bittersweet twist, the couple won't be able to do what they love best: dance for their friends and family. But they still sway to Charleston, foxtrot and big band music, and at the party he might still sing a few bars of "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" for the guests. After all, he says with some swagger, he's a tall, good-looking fellow.

The Dehnes talk about their youth in the early 20th century as if it were yesterday, reliving bits of personal history. For him, the worst part is describing dropping out of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute after a run-in with the principal.

"We've lived through so much history. How we got through I don't know," says Dehne, who's known as "Buck." He entered the workaday world early - at 14, on the eve of the Depression. His hourly wage was 36 cents throughout the 1930s, until the boom of World War II hit.

For 45 years, he worked at Koppers Co. in Baltimore as a "set-up man" on the piston ring assembly line. He was a union man, but undercover, he says.

Elsie Dehne, as the oldest girl in a large family, also felt the sting of leaving school prematurely. "I had to stop school and help my mother," she says wistfully.

She worked hard, too, over the years, in retail when big department stores thrived in downtown Baltimore. She worked in the credit offices of Hecht's, Hutzler's and Hoschild Kohn. She took the streetcar to work except during her two pregnancies in the '30s - when she walked to avoid crowding and jostling.

Together they raised a daughter, Barbara, and a son, Ronald. The extended family lives in the area and will show up in force to celebrate the 75-year milestone.

"Determination and hard work are what I saw growing up," Ronald Dehne, a retired electrician, says of his parents.

They still trade lighthearted jokes about his father's football career with the Arbutus Athletic Association's Big Red team in the 1920s - he is the only living former member.

"I'm a living legend," Charles Dehne says.

"In his own mind," Ronald Dehne says, smiling.

In the 1960s, that era of city exodus, they moved from Baltimore to a house in Anne Arundel County near a creek named for nearby cypress trees. The land they live on used to be a blackberry patch. A blooming crape myrtle tree planted back then conceals the neighboring larger houses built more recently.

The Dehnes' home became the gathering place for holidays and other family get-togethers.

"That was the anchor place, where everything happened," says granddaughter Veronica E. Purkey, 38, a secretary.

"We got along all right," Elsie Dehne says. "But we were so happy living here in a home of our own. That was the beginning of our happiness."

She keeps a cane handy, and he uses a walker to get around. Aside from frail hips and joints, they are sharp, clear and given to a good story or laugh. Favorite things - pinochle games, bowling medals, the local Elks and their three younger generations of family - often crop up in conversation.

One good thing about getting married young, Elsie Dehne says, is seeing her grandchildren grow up and doing things such as taking them downtown at Christmastime.

While Elsie is sugar to Charles' salt, every muscle in his face softens when he smiles at his red-haired great-granddaughter, Breanna Purkey, 6, of Essex.

"We argue a lot and we don't agree on hardly anything," Charles Dehne says matter-of-factly.

"When he thinks of something, he says it," Elsie Dehne remarks. "I can't be that bold ... . But you have to work it out."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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