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True Love: Couple Celebrated 81 Anniversaries Together

East Oregonian | Feb. 14, 2013 2:36 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 14, 2013 10:36 p.m.

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KATHY ANEY

Searching for the true definition of love this Valentine’s Day? Consider the marriage of Elbert and Faye Eppenbach.

The Irrigon couple celebrated 81 anniversaries before Elbert died at age 105 last month. Only 30 days later, Faye joined her husband in death. She was 104.

They had both suffered ill health of late, lying in twin beds inside their Irrigon home while hospice workers and family members cared for them.

“They were in the living room, side-by-side,” said daughter-in-law Annette Eppenbach, who is married to the couple’s youngest son John. “They often held hands.”

The two met more than eight decades earlier in Wyoming, where Faye hoed beets for the Holly Sugar Company. Her sister Elva, who managed a group of cabins nearby that catered mostly to truck drivers, met Elbert when he stayed the night. The 24-year-old Nebraskan had been hauling beets.

“Elva thought he’d make a good match for mom and introduced them,” said their oldest son Don. “Two months later, they were married.”

The couple forged an unbreakable bond that survived for more than eight decades.

After the wedding, Elbert took a job in Minnesota, working for a seed company. They faced their first major trauma when Faye gave birth to their first child in a doctor’s back room on a frigid day near Lake of the Woods. Three feet of snow kept them from traveling 20 miles to the nearest hospital. Faye described the scene in a speech she gave at age 87 at a family reunion.

“With Elbert giving the ether, my dad helping and my mom, the nurse and the poor doctor wishing we were all in the hospital, we made the grade with God being the co-pilot,” she said.

Their tiny son, who later became the mayor of Irrigon, barely survived birth.

“We carried him around on a pillow with a broken arm, skinned head and a one-in-10 chance to live,” Faye said.

After Don came seven other children, all born in hospitals. In 1951, Elbert, Faye and seven of the children (John hadn’t arrived yet) packed into the family’s 1946 Pontiac and drove to Eastern Oregon.

“My uncle worked on the McNary Dam,” Don said. “He told Dad, ‘If you know one end of the hammer from the other, you can get a job as a carpenter.’”

When they arrived, the job had been filled. Elbert instead found work at the Umatilla Ordnance Depot, hauling ammunition and bombs. He eventually worked his way up to surveillance supervisor.

Elbert and Faye carved out a life on Irrigon acreage where they raised cows, chickens, pigs, alfalfa, watermelons and a huge vegetable garden. John and Don couldn’t remember their parents ever arguing. With such a large brood, they waited until evening for alone time.

“They would talk late into the night — through the night sometimes,” Annette said.

Elbert never got too far away from Faye, even helping her can vegetables harvested from their massive garden. They loved camping and fishing getaways with the family. Faye often broke out in rhyme, reciting poetry she had learned as a girl in Missouri. She favored Longfellow, said her sons.

In later years, the couple stayed active at church and had a weekly date night at the Hermiston Dairy Queen, where they split a chicken basket. Elbert continued to drive past the age of 100, often taking Faye into Hermiston to shop.

“He got his driver’s license renewed at 100 for eight more years, but gave the license up voluntarily at age 103,” Annette said.

Elbert stayed active riding a three-wheeled tricycle to fetch the mail each day. He gardened in the summer and chopped wood to feed the stove in winter. Neither he nor Faye drank or smoked and they ate a nutritious diet of homegrown produce.

The relationship between the low-key Elbert and the more gregarious Faye remained strong. Their sons and daughter-in-law smiled at the memory of Faye getting possessive of her husband after he had a knee replacement in his 80s.

“Faye didn’t like the nurses in physical therapy touching Elbert,” Annette said.

Elbert’s frail body finally gave out on Jan. 13 in their living room, two days after the couple’s anniversary. Faye hunkered down, sinking inward and getting weaker.

“She was just waiting for her turn to go,” said retired Assembly of God pastor Allen Gordanier, who often visited the couple to talk and pray with them.

Faye turned 104 on Sunday. On Monday, she died, likely with Elbert on her mind.

Faye’s words linger to comfort the family.

“Through our lifetime, we have had sad times and bad times and lots of good times, but overall it’s been a great life,” she said nearly two decades ago at that family reunion. “God has been good to us.”

Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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