A man from Rantoul, Illinois, and a woman from Westbrook, Minnesota, first met while attending Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

Besides college, they learned they had several things in common. Both had German ancestry, grew up on a farm, attended a Lutheran church and had the same values.

Despite Bernard “Ben” Emkes leaving Wartburg to serve in World War II, he and Orpha Rachuy remained in touch.

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The summer after he returned home from the war, the two married on June 9, 1946, at an American Lutheran church in Orpha’s hometown.

This year, on June 9, they will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary.

“One of the things I have always believed in is through our backgrounds being very similar, I picked the right girl,” Ben said, smiling. “With our faith being the same and our life values the same, that helped us tremendously to live a good, comfortable life together. You love each other, and the main thing is you have to respect each other, and that’s what we do. We’ve had a great life together.”

Orpha said they both grew up attending one-room schools where patriotism was important, had parents who made sure they attended church and had food on the table and were brought up during The Great Depression and World War II.

“We had to have faith in each other and respect for others, so it’s really the same values all the way through,” Orpha said.

To celebrate 70 years of marriage, their eight children are planning an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Celebrations in Seymour. More than 100 of their family members plan to attend the event. The couple request no gifts.

The celebration will include a 30-minute program at 3 p.m. with a performance by the Lutheran Men’s Chorus, of which Ben has been a member for 36 years. Also, their daughter, Sandra Burroughs, and her husband, Mike, will lead the Lord’s Prayer.

“We’ll see lots of people that we haven’t seen for a long time and a lot of relatives that are near and dear to us,” Orpha said.

Some of the family members will be coming from Minnesota and Illinois. The couple have 14 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren with another on the way.

“This is practically a reunion,” Ben said.

At Wartburg, an American Lutheran church college, Orpha took business courses, while Ben went there to become a chaplain and also played basketball.

“It’s a small college, and everybody got to know everybody, pretty much,” Orpha said.

In December 1942, during Ben’s second year at Wartburg, he was drafted for World War II. He served in the China Burma India Theater as an aviation engineer with the U.S. Army Air Corps. He helped build airstrips and also helped build a road across the Himalaya mountain range.

“It was a great experience, but I wouldn’t want to go again,” Ben said. “That was my part at that time.”

Orpha, meanwhile, worked in Waterloo, Iowa, and did secretarial work for a packing company and a Lutheran church.

They corresponded back and forth with letters.

“That’s how most of our romance was,” Orpha said, smiling.

Shortly after Ben left to serve in the war, he knew Orpha had a birthday coming up, so he sent her landlady a check for $55 to buy a cedar chest and a white rug to go across it. That chest is still in their home today.

“It is an antique,” Orpha said.

Ben was discharged from the military Christmas Eve in 1945 and transferred to the University of Illinois. A year after the couple were married, Ben graduated with a degree from the School of Commerce.

On March 1, 1949, Ben accepted a job with Buhner Fertilizer Co. in Seymour, so the couple moved to Indiana. During his time there, the company changed ownership five times, and he worked his way up to titles of president and general manager.

He retired in 1987.

“It tied into my farming background,” Ben said. “I knew all of the agricultural aspects of operating a fertilizer business, and it worked well for us. I got offers to go to Oklahoma, but I turned them down.”

Orpha stayed busy raising their eight children.

“It was a full-time job, and they were all active in a lot of activities — music lessons and ball practices and all of that stuff. Some of them were in 4-H, and they went to vacation Bible school,” she said.

The couple are charter members of Zion Lutheran Church, which opened in Seymour in the late 1950s. Through time, they have been involved with boards, choirs and Sunday school at the church. Orpha also was a part of a women’s organization, and Ben helped start the school there in the 1970s.

In the early 1990s, the church wanted to start a booth at the Seymour Oktoberfest. After trying barbecue chicken, the church switched to apple dumplings in 1991 using Orpha’s recipe.

Those are still a popular food choice at the annual festival.

“We made 1,500 the first year, and we were wondering if we’d get rid of them. Now, they are way up around 8,000, and we always sell out,” Orpha said.

The couple still help with the project when they can.

“It involves so many workers from the church. Young and old all help with that project,” Orpha said.

Ben and Orpha also have been involved in volunteer work at Lutheran Community Home in Seymour and have been big supporters of Trinity Lutheran High School, also in Seymour.

Ben also has been a part of the Lutheran Men’s Chorus for 36 of the 37 years of its existence. A year after it started, the leader took a call to California, so Lutheran Community Home became the choir’s sponsor.

It started with a handful of men and now has 22 members, including three charter members.

Along with singing with the choir over the years, Ben has been involved in administrative work for the group, including scheduling its shows. The choir annually sings about 20 times at various churches and events in the area.

Because of some trouble with his vision, Ben said he plans to end his run with the choir later this year.

“It has been a joyful thing for me,” he said. “That’s a very important part of my life, really.”

Retirement also has given the couple time to travel. They have made several trips to Germany and once went around the world, visiting Germany, Dubai, Singapore, China and Hawaii.

Ben also spends time gardening, which is something he started when he was 9. Now at age 94, he tends to his 50 tomato plants.

Orpha said she always has liked cooking and baking for family members and other people, but it’s getting more difficult at age 92.

“That’s what I miss the most. It’s getting to where I can’t get around as good anymore. I lose my energy,” she said. “But we do what we can.”

As Ben and Orpha reflect on 70 years together, they hope their story inspires others.

Their youngest child, Jana Gray, said it has inspired her.

“They really emphasized honesty and integrity,” Gray said. “Putting God first, family second and then yourself. Always showing kindness to whomever and whenever. Making a meal for someone in need because of sickness or a death in the family or ‘just because.’”

Orpha said love and respect are important to having a long marriage, and Ben agreed.

“You’ve got to love each other continuously. Even if you have an argument, you solve that with love,” he said. “And you’ve got to have that respect for each other. Whatever she does, I respect her for it. If you keep those thoughts in mind, you’re going to stay together. Having faith in your Lord and Savior, that’s the final thread there that you’ve got to follow. Go to church together.”

The Emkes file

Names: Bernard “Ben” and Orpha Emkes

Ages: He is 94, and she is 92

Hometowns: He’s from Rantoul, Illinois, and she’s from Westbrook, Minnesota

Residence: They have lived in Seymour since 1949

Occupations: He retired in 1987 after nearly 40 years working for various fertilizer companies, and she was a homemaker.

Family: Eight children, Bernie (Marta) Emkes, Joan (Bill) Whitaker, Mark (Conchi) Emkes, Sandra (Mike) Burroughs, Michael (Cindy) Emkes, Jane (Paul) Schlessinger, John (Julie) Emkes and Jana (Scott) Gray; 14 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren with one on the way

If you go

What: 70th wedding anniversary celebration for Bernard “Ben” and Orpha Emkes

When: 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Celebrations, 357 Tanger Blvd., Suite 101, Seymour

Who: Friends and family are invited; the couple request no gifts

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.