By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
KEOTA — Tom Greiner fell in love with Renee Bormann when both attended a Catholic boarding school for children with special needs. They’d see each other through a chain link fence that separated the girls’ and boys’ quarters. Later, Renee recruited Tom to be her campaign manager for student council president. She won.
After completing studies at St. Coletta’s in the late 1970s, Tom moved back to Keota and Renee went to live with her older sister, Shirley Bormann, who was teaching special education in Yankton, South Dakota. Tom wanted to build a life with Renee and called her often. He convinced his beloved and both sets of parents to consent to marriage between the two young adults. Their parents consulted with Shirley. “I felt Tom and Renee had a right to a life, too, with supervision.”
On Sept. 26, Tom and Renee celebrated their 34th wedding anniversary at Keota Health Care Center where Renee, who has a severe form of multiple sclerosis, has lived since the late 1990s.
Shirley ordered a cake decorated for the avid Iowa Hawkeye fans and got an Elvis impersonator to make an appearance.
In an interview before their anniversary, Tom and Renee talked about their commitment to their marriage vows and their gratitude for each other despite their challenges. Tom glanced fondly at Renee, seated next to him in her wheelchair in the nursing home’s lounge. Also visiting that day were John and Cathy Conway (Cathy is Tom’s older sister) and Shirley, whose married name is Altenhofen.
Tom lives in an apartment on the nursing home campus, eats all of his meals with Renee and entertains her with YouTube videos and live-stream video from school events in Parkston, South Dakota. That’s Renee’s hometown and her nieces and great-nephews attend school there. It’s her window on the world, allowing her to be an “armchair traveler.” Renee also participates in the WCDC (formerly Washington County Developmental Center). When she’s gone Tom rides his bicycle, goes for walks, journals or scans his computer.
His middle name is Francis, Tom reveals during the interview. “I call him Pope Francis,” Renee says. His acts of kindness toward Renee could be seen as chief shepherd material. He flosses her teeth, props up the pillow on her wheel chair, checks to make sure she has everything she needs. “Tom has always been wonderful to her,” Cathy says.
Was it love at first sight for Renee? “Not really,” she responds. “Getting married was not one of my goals. My goal was graduating from high school, getting a diploma and getting a job.” Tom knew long ago that Renee “was the gal I loved.” He still loves her. And she loves him.
For the first 15 years of their marriage, Tom and Renee lived next to John and Cathy in a smaller house on the farm property in Wellman. “Tom helped me on the farm doing what he could to help with farm chores and field work,” John says. Tom recalls that he operated a tractor with a manure spreader and tilled fields with a desk harrow and field cultivator, among other chores.
In December 1995 Tom got kicked by a cow, and his injured leg got infected. Tom and Renee moved to a small house in Keota near Shirley so that she could keep an eye on them. Tom began working at a small factory, which has since closed. “My husband helped Tom get the job in Keota and Renee was so proud of him,” Shirley says.
Months later, Renee was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. Prior to the diagnosis Tom assisted Renee in extraordinary ways without telling anyone — helping his wife stand up in the shower, getting dressed for the day.
When Renee moved into the nursing home, the couple stoically accepted it. “Both of them are very realistic. I think it’s from having to go away to school and being told how to operate,” Shirley says. In her role as their guardian angel, “I’m learning so much more about Renee and Tom. They didn’t talk about themselves for many years. Maybe they didn’t want to be vulnerable,” Shirley muses. “They are inspiring to us,” John says.
Tom and Renee are religious, having been born and raised in the Catholic faith, Shirley adds. Tom is more demonstrative in his faith while Renee is proud of hers. “I do believe in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit,” says Tom. “All those years God was watching me through my troubles. I have been living with my disability all of these years. I do read the Bible every day and pray the rosary.” He prays to St. Raphael for Renee’s health. She appreciates the prayers.
Even as Renee’s health declines, she and Tom remain committed to one another. “We follow our vows,” Renee says. “Till death do us part.”