Their love story began 70 years ago. Three farm couples found their true love during their younger years. And the common thread among these couples is the Egyptian Theatre, the DeKalb County Farm Bureau, and a glove box!
Ray & Carol Larson: “Love One Another”
When Ray and Carol Larson take a walk down memory lane it elicits smiles. They reflect and respond, “It goes back to the basics: Love one another.”
The Larsons, who were high school sweethearts, have been married for 69 years.
“It has been the people and relationships we have made along the way that has been an important part of our lives,” said Carol.
Carol attended one-room country schools in Kane and DeKalb counties, with grades1st-4th at the Brush School and 2nd-8th grades at Charter Grove School.
Her farm family, the Wirsings, moved between farms in the two counties until her father purchased the Rus Rasmussen farm in rural Sycamore. Rus was working for the DeKalb Agricultural Association then and was experimenting with hybrid seed corn. Carol detasseled some of the seed corn on the farm where they lived during her high school years.
The young farm girl went to Sycamore High School where she met Ray, who was a cousin to Carol’s best friend.
Ray was a farm boy who grew up on a Sycamore dairy and grain farm located on Airport Road. He attended Lovells Crossing School on Lovells Road, grades 1st-8th, then Sycamore High School (SHS).
Ray and Carol began dating their junior year at SHS. While they were going steady they went to dances at Charter Grove Grange Hall on Saturday nights. During their senior year they also attended dances at school, like the GAA Dance in 1952 where they were crowned king and queen. Square dancing and ballroom dancing were popular then.
Ray also liked sports – he was on the high school football team and manager of the basketball team. He played baseball too.
At their senior banquet, classmates had fun assigning titles to one another – the couple was presented a certificate naming them the “2 Best Farmers” with the inscription stating they were “a plow and a tractor.”
“We’ve been a good plow and tractor all these years,” said Carol. “Some days I’m the plow and he’s the tractor and other days I’m the tractor and he’s the plow. We make a good farm team.”
The couple’s farm roots naturally meant they were involved in 4-H and Rural Youth, organizations affiliated with Farm Bureau for young farm people back in the day. They enjoyed socializing with others having similar interests.
Some of their date nights were going to the Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb for a movie. (In later years they would return to the Egyptian for Farm Bureau Annual Meetings, cooking schools and for live performances. And, to see their granddaughter Jeanine who heads up marketing for the Egyptian.)
On Dec. 31, 1952, they had planned to go to the midnight movie at the Egyptian. Ray had parked his 1950 Ford on North 2nd Street outside the theatre. He told Carol to look in the glove box. She did and found an engagement ring!
“We had talked about getting married so I went ahead and purchased a ring at Meinert’s jewelry store in Sycamore,” explained Ray. “I later learned that the girls at NB&T saw me coming out of the jewelry store and told Carol she was getting a ring.” Carol was working at the bank then.
“We had decided April would be a good time to get married,” continued Ray. “The oats would be planted in the spring and we would get married and go on our honeymoon before we planted corn in May.”
They were married April 25, 1953 at the Burlington Methodist Church, Carol’s home church. The wedding reception was held at Charter Grove Grange Hall. About 150 family and friends were served ham and chicken salad and accompaniments, plus cake for a cost of $100.
Ray and Carol lived on farms in the Genoa and Sycamore area before locating to their Maple Park farm in 1965. It’s there where Ray developed a sizeable cattle feedlot and at the same time was highly involved in beef leadership at the county, state and national levels. Ray also served on the Farm Bureau Board.
When Ray was gone to meetings Carol kept the farm going. She drove the combine, and handled the accounting in their farm office. “In the ‘60s, Carol was one of the first women to be actively involved in farming, on a day-to-day basis,” said Ray.
“We have been supportive of each other,” added Carol. “Our core values from the very beginning have been faith, family and farming.”
Their three adult children joined them in the farming operation after college and that’s when they started a farm partnership with them and eventually their grandson, who now lives on the Larson Farm. Their family has grown to include seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Ray and Carol moved to Sycamore a few years ago. They are active members of their church, having served in various capacities at Sycamore Methodist.
Ray and Carol, now 87, say the key to their marriage is their faith as stated in 1st Corinthians: “And the Greatest of these is Love.”
Jeff & Mary Lu Strack: “Life is an Adventure”
In February 1952, Mary Lu Walter accompanied her brother, Joey, to the county’s 4-H Federation meeting being held at the Farm Bureau Building. There she set her eyes on a newcomer, Jeff Strack, who was attending his first Federation meeting.
“I noticed him right away. He was good-looking, had blue eyes, blonde hair and was tall!” said Mary Lu.
“I saw her, too, and was hoping to meet her,” said Jeff.
The activity for the Federation meeting was line dancing which required the young participants to change partners. Sure enough they became line dance partners. At the end of the evening Jeff asked if he could take Mary Lu home. Mary Lu’s brother gave his approval.
A month later they saw each other again at the Federation meeting and Jeff took Mary Lu home. Then Jeff waited a few more weeks (he didn’t want to appear too eager) to ask her out on a date. Their first date was at the Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb, to see a movie. They remember sitting in the balcony, but they don’t recollect the movie. Reminiscing, they noted it was a “wonderful” night. To top it off Mary Lu gave Jeff a goodnight kiss… he was smitten!
They continued to go to the Egyptian which then entailed seeing the “The News of the Day Newsreel,” some cartoons, and finally the feature film in black and white. Other special dates involved roller skating at Lindeman’s Roller Rink in DeKalb.
As teenagers, dating for them came with some restrictions, mostly from Mary Lu’s parents. Her father, Joe, told Mary Lu that her feet were to hit the ground as soon as the car wheels stopped turning. The Walter farmstead was well-lit and Mary Lu’s father would flicker the lights to warn Jeff to be on his way. One night her dad was flickering the lights but couldn’t see them inside the car because Jeff and Mary Lu were on the porch. Her dad jerked open the door and Jeff fell down on top of her dad, resulting in both of them lying on the kitchen floor. As soon as they picked themselves up from the floor, Joe said, “Nice night, isn’t it son.” And never bothered them again!
Jeff grew up on farms near Sycamore raising grain and livestock with his father, Lester. He went to the Persons Country School, 1st-8th grades, and graduated from Sycamore High School.
Mary Lu was raised on the Walter family farm south of DeKalb. She went to a one-room country school for first grade, then St. Mary’s Catholic School, 2nd-8th grades. She graduated from DeKalb High School.
In 4-H, Mary Lu enjoyed sewing and flower arranging projects. She was a member of the Afton Jolly Friendship Girls Club and most notably was the first person to earn the “I Dare You” award in DeKalb County and Illinois based on her leadership in 4-H.
Jeff was president of the Parke Victory 4-H Club and the county 4-H Federation. He showed club calves, was a member of the county’s livestock judging team which won state, and played softball.
The 4-H sweethearts dated for nearly a year before they were engaged. “I was driving my 1951 Ford to Rockford to eat at a smorgasbord and I told her to look in the glove box for a stick of gum,” explained Jeff.
“I sarcastically said Juicy Fruit or Spearmint? I grabbed the Spearmint and there was a ring sticking out of the gum!” said a love struck Mary Lu.
They were married September 18, 1954 at St. Mary’s Church in DeKalb. After the wedding, they drove downtown by the Still’s Drugstore to be interviewed for “Man on the Street” by Bob Brown with WLBK, an uncle of Mary Lu’s. Then they headed to the Farm Bureau Building for their wedding reception.
The Stracks were the only couple to have a wedding reception in the Farm Bureau Building on Sixth Street. In 1954 the building was just three years old. Mary Lu had worked in the building at the government farm agency office and also at Country Companies Insurance. Upon Mary Lu’s request, Henry Carlson, Farm Bureau’s executive director, allowed the reception.
Mary Lu and her mother, Lucile, raised and cooked the chicken for their wedding reception along with most of the other dishes for the 300 family and friends in attendance. Their reception cost $120.
They honeymooned in Belle Fourche, North Dakota, familiar territory for Jeff who bought sheep there with his father. They returned to make their home in rural Sycamore, in the same house Jeff’s parents were married in. They spent 40 years on the Barber-Greene Road farm raising their eight children.
While Jeff was farming, Mary Lu was a homemaker and mother. She also waitressed at NIU and other local banquet halls and was a crew chief for the USDA Farm Census. Jeff retired from farming and eventually they moved to town in 1999. Their DeKalb home warmly welcomes their expanded family of 40.
In the community, Jeff served on the Farm Bureau Board for 10 years. Mary Lu was active in Extension with Home Bureau and now HEA.
As a Farm Bureau Director, Jeff remembers the Farm Bureau Annual Meetings at the Egyptian Theatre in the ‘60s and ‘70s which also included lunch at local churches and other locations. “We always picked the church with the best cooks. We went to St. Mary’s church to eat.” Mary Lu recalls serving food for St. Mary’s at the Farm Bureau Building, another location for annual meeting lunches back then.
The two summarize their lives: “Life is an adventure.” They continue to make each other smile and giggle about their lifelong journey.
“Being together makes me happy,” said Jeff, now 88. “Everything is more fun when I do it with him,” added Mary Lu, 86.
Buster & Charlene Latimer: “Key to Love is Friendship”
Gerald “Buster” Latimer says the key to a long-lasting marriage is “friendship.” He and his wife, Charlene, have been “forever friends and farm partners.”
“As a farm couple we did so many things together,” said Buster. “When we were farming, Charlene would pack a lunch and meet us in the field, so we would stop long enough to eat and spend time together as a family. When I got home late she would have a hot meal waiting for me.”
“We always got along,” said Charlene, in the 67 years they have been married. “Life wasn’t always easy though. Buster worked extremely hard as a farmer.”
Buster spent his childhood in south central Saskatchewan, Canada. His uncle had purchased some farmland so his family moved there in 1925 to help farm. Eventually his father also bought some land, which required clearing of brush with a team of horses.
Their large family lived in a small house and made due, without the modern conveniences as we know today. Buster went to a one-room country school in Tisdale and finished correspondence classes through the 10th grade.
At the age of 17 he returned to the states to work on another uncle’s ranch in Rochelle. He enjoyed the ranch-style life taking care of a cow-calf herd and horses. That’s where he became a “real cowboy” watching his uncle lasso and rope calves. The cowboy still loves a good western movie and for years went to the national rodeo finals. He also has quite the collection of cowboy hats.
His family moved back to DeKalb in 1939 to the Latimer Farm on Rich Road, where his father was born and where Buster and Charlene live today. On their farm they raised sheep, cattle and hogs.
About one-half mile to the west lived Charlene’s family, the O’Donnells. Charlene went to a one-room country school on Schafer and Rich roads, grades 1st-8th, then continued her education at Malta High School and graduated from DeKalb High School.
Buster was friends with the O’Donnell boys, Charlene’s brothers, so they knew one another in their teenage years. Buster recalls having a 4-H meeting at his house in which Charlene attended. “I met her for the first time at the 4-H meeting,” said Buster. “I thought she was a nice-looking girl!”
Their first date was when Charlene asked Buster to go with her to a friend’s wedding. Some of their other dates were to sporting events like hockey games, baseball games, and the Egyptian Theatre to see western movies.
Being a farm girl, Charlene helped her father, Thomas, milk cows on their dairy farm. “I remember getting up and milking at 4 a.m. and then again in the early evening. My brothers were in the service so dad needed my help.” They milked cows for Babson Farms. Eventually they moved to another Babson Farm on Keslinger Road and continued dairying.
After their 4-H years, Buster and Charlene were in Rural Youth, in the 1940s and 1950s. Rural Youth was a social program for young farm people, affiliated with Farm Bureau. During their Rural Youth days they did a lot of square dancing at Haish Gym. Buster remembers when a group of them were invited to the WLS Barn Dance in Chicago.
Buster got to know more about Farm Bureau when he was working for Frank Schweitzer, who served as the organization’s secretary-treasurer. During the mid-1940’s Buster went to the Farm Bureau Annual Meetings held at the Egyptian Theatre. Later Buster would serve on the Farm Bureau Board.
The Farm Bureau Sports Festivals were a highlight for Buster, being an avid baseball player. He loved it when their team was in the state championship tournaments held in Champaign and Bloomington. He farmed during the day and played baseball at night in the Farm Bureau leagues, for the DeKalb Blue Socks, and Sycamore Suns. In the 1940s he played on the Blue Socks team and won the batting championship at the Elgin tournament.
In her younger years Charlene played softball in local leagues. Years later their three sons played softball and now their great-grandson is quite the baseball player.
Buster and Charlene were engaged over Christmas in 1952. Buster was driving his ’51 Pontiac when he suggested that Charlene “look in the glove box,” which was where he had her engagement ring.
They were married April 11, 1953 at St. Mary’s Church in DeKalb. The wedding reception was also held there. After the reception, Charlene’s dad took them for a buggy ride guided by their team of ponies through downtown DeKalb. They honeymooned in the Ozarks.
Buster and Charlene moved to the Latimer Farm on Rich Road in 1958 after Buster’s parents had moved to a farm they purchased in Clare. The young couple raised their family on the Latimer Farm.
Buster, now 99 years old, and Charlene, 93, are most proud of their family that has grown to include eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
As Buster nears the century-mark, he reflects on some changes in agriculture. He remembers using a team of horses to pull a one-bottom plow in 1936, when he was 14 years old. Compare that to his later years of farming with a 4180 White tractor pulling an 8-bottom plow in 1985. “There have been a lot of changes during my lifetime, but life has been good and I have been fortunate to be healthy, alongside my wife, Charlene.”
Learn more about the Farm Bureau Annual Meetings HERE.