By Celine Klosterman
MUSCATINE — After 70 years of marriage, Cleo Bermel has learned three keys to success in life’s vocations: love, patience and faith.
She believes those qualities helped her and her husband, Frank, as they began married life as poor farmers, raised four children, endured a son’s death, weathered health scares and welcomed 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. During an April 30 open-house celebration of the spouses’ anniversary, the two members of Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish counted their blessings with about 250 friends and family members.
“We’ve been really lucky,” Frank said at his and Cleo’s home days before the festivities. “…Seventy years went like that,” he said with a slap of his hand.
More than seven decades ago, he and Cleo Carter grew up in the same neighborhood and dated on and off for two years before Frank gave her a diamond ring on Valentine’s Day in 1941. They married a little more than two months later, on April 30 in Muscatine at St. Mary Church, where Frank’s grandparents were founding parishioners. The spouses then moved into Frank’s rural home – where they still live today – and grew various crops and cared for cows and pigs while living without electricity and indoor plumbing for the first few years.
As years passed, the Bermels had four children: Janet, Jim, Ron and Dennis, who sometimes accompanied their parents to dances during which the youngsters slept on benches. At St. Mary’s the couple prayed novenas together, and the family faithfully attended Mass with Frank’s guideline in mind: “If you don’t go to church on Sunday morning, you don’t do anything the rest of the day.”
Whatever the couple did, they did together, said Cleo, 88.
“We didn’t have my money and her money; it was all ours,” Frank, 92, said. “And we never made a decision without asking the other person” – except for one tractor purchase he made, he admitted with a laugh.
The couple was often too busy to argue, Cleo said. During disagreements, “One person just gave in – usually me,” she said, laughing. “…When you get older, you find things you thought were a big deal are actually trivial.”
Serious challenges the couple faced brought her that perspective. About 20 years ago, she underwent open heart surgery and was unresponsive for a time afterward. If she hadn’t made it through, “I don’t know what I would’ve done. I wouldn’t have made it, either,” Frank said.
In 2008 the Bermels did face tragedy. After battling brain cancer, their youngest son, Dennis, died in December that year. “God’s blessed us with a lot in life, but I never learned why he took him,” Cleo said.
The Bermels said their pastor, Father Jason Crossen, helped them through their grief. Cleo said the loss brought her, Frank, and the rest of their family closer. “It takes a lot of love, patience and faith to accept the challenges there are in life. Life is so short; you have to just take it one day at a time.”
Today, Frank is a member of the Knights of Columbus, and Cleo belongs to the Catholic Daughters of the Americas. Her eyesight is failing due to macular degeneration, so Frank drives her to Mass and takes her shopping.
“He still calls her sweetie,” their daughter, Janet Derksen, observed. “…They are an example for anyone.”
Fr. Crossen shared similar sentiments. “Reaching one’s 70th wedding anniversary is a wondrous accomplishment that should be celebrated for faithfulness, love and patience in a world where these values are in short supply.”
“They’ve been very blessed,” the couple’s son Jim said. Frank continues to stress the importance of hard work; for the most part, the spouses have been healthy, and they still make it to church every Sunday, Jim noted. “I think they’re really inspiring for a lot of people.”