Jerry Davich: A love affair written in stone - 70 years later
Jerry Davich email@example.com November 10, 2012 7:08PM
The friendship between Lake Central senior Marissa Emery and Betty Kolodziej of Crown Point has grown since the pair met through Emery's assigment in Tom Clark's class at Lake Central High School. Emery travelled to France while on a family vacation to seek out the grave of Kolodziej's fiance Homer Gettler who was killed in action in World War II. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 12, 2012 6:05AM
Seventy years ago, Betty Grunewald and Homer “Binks” Gettler were high school sweethearts whose love affair was pretty much written in stone.
Thanks to a teenage girl they had never met, it still is, with their love transcending time, space and even heartbreaking fate.
Everyone at Dyer High School knew them simply as Betty and Binks, and just assumed they would get married, have children and ride off into the sunset together.
“He was the only boyfriend I had all through high school,” recalled Betty, who now lives in Crown Point. “We passed notes to each other a lot in the hallway in between classes.”
But World War II was heating up and Binks was drafted, so the young lovers’ plans had to be put on hold for Uncle Sam. Binks’ plans to be a professional baseball pitcher also had to wait in life’s on-deck circle.
It didn’t matter that he threw a fistful of no-hitters in high school. Or that he was picked up by the Chicago White Sox and played on their farm team. Or that he once pitched in practice to famed New York Yankees slugger “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio. Or that his Cubs-loving father enjoyed baseball so much he named his only son Homer.
Duty called in 1943, so Binks did his civic duty and joined the U.S. Army, where he trained as an infantryman, more specifically, mortars weaponry. He was stationed at different military bases in the U.S. before being deployed overseas with the 35th Infantry Division to fight the Germans.
However, before leaving, he told his sister to buy an engagement ring for Betty. Binks’ mother, Alma, gave it to Betty. However, during Binks’ last brief stay back at home before shoving off for Europe, he personally — and properly — gave it to Betty.
The young sweethearts were engaged. It was official. And finally in stone, diamonds to be exact.
“We were young and in love,” Betty said with a sigh.
Betty was 20. Binks was 21. She waved goodbye that day as his train headed east. They wouldn’t see each other ever again.
‘I prayed every night’
Cpl. Homer Binks Gettler ended up in France where, on Sept. 22, 1944, he wrote to his sister, Charlotte, saying that Betty “should know by now that I am thinking of her at all times. All I do is pray for the day to come so we both can be together again, and married.”
Soon after that wartime missive was sent, Binks’ division was invaded by German troops. He and others in his mortar unit were cut off, stranded with only a pistol. Binks made his way back to his mortar position to shoot off a few rounds. But not enough to save his life.
He was killed by enemy fire on Oct. 2, 1944. Later, he earned a Silver Star medal for his valor. It was small comfort for his family and Betty.
When the Western Union telegram announcing his death arrived at his family’s home, only Binks’ young sister, Paula, was there to hear the dire news.
“She yelled at the driver to go away,” said Betty, who couldn’t believe the news for years to come. “I honestly believed and prayed that maybe he was only wounded and that he had amnesia. I hoped that he would someday come back home to us.”
Binks never returned home, nor did his body, which was buried in a U.S. military cemetery in St. Avold, France. It’s still there.
Back in the states, Betty didn’t date for years afterward yet she tried to move on, along with thousands of other mourning widows, fiancées and girlfriends.
“My life kind of carried on as best it could,” she explained.
She eventually met an East Chicago man named Peter Kolodziej, maybe not so surprisingly a World War II veteran who survived a German prisoner camp to return to the states. They married in 1951, had three children, and their union lasted 43 years until Peter’s death.
“He was a wonderful husband and father,” said Betty, who’s now 87 and has Peter’s last name of Kolodziej (pronounced Ka-LO-jay).
But Betty never forgot about her first love, Binks. She prayed for him every night.
“I prayed that he didn’t suffer when he was killed,” she told me.
‘It all came rushing back’
Fast forward to earlier this year, at Lake Central High School in St. John, where 17-year-old student Marissa Emery was assigned a class project.
Her history teacher, Tom Clark, has been offering an insightful war-related project to his students since 1985. Its mission: To unearth all they could about deceased military veterans from several wars and conflicts. To make their lives, their deaths and their call to duty, well, come alive. To put human faces and stories on so many war-related deaths.
Emery — an enthusiastic teen, just as Betty was — took her task to heart.
“The greatest things happen in Mr. Clark’s class,” she told me. “I learned that soldiers’ lives are much more than just a textbook statistic. Each one was a person with a personal story.”
Through many letters from Binks to his family, which Clark’s students had researched for years, Emery learned about Betty. Not only was Betty still alive, she still lived in Northwest Indiana. Emery had to meet her.
“I’m a big believer in romance, especially teenage love,” Emery said. “Betty the teenager didn’t get the love she deserved.”
The two women met this past spring. Emery, a junior at the time, brought Betty a bouquet of flowers. In turn, Betty explained in wonderful detail her young love affair with Binks.
“It all came rushing back, all my memories, like it was yesterday,” Betty said.
Emery noted, “I just knew we needed to be in each other’s life.”
After talking for three hours, Emery took Betty aside and told her that she and her family were traveling to Germany in the summer to visit family. Emery offered to find the cemetery where Binks was buried.
“You would?” asked Betty, surprised at a teenager’s sincere thoughtfulness.
Emery asked Betty that if she found Binks’ grave, could she bring back anything as a memento. The old woman pondered the unexpected offer and replied, “Please say a prayer for Binks and bring me back a stone.”
The months peeled away and Betty forgot about the offer, until this past September when Emery called her. Emery asked if she, and her teacher, Clark, could stop by to give her something.
“I was very nervous,” Betty said. “So nervous that I asked my daughter to come over and be with me.”
‘She just .. understands’
Emery, who speaks French, traveled from Germany to France via train by herself, given directions from a cousin.
At the military cemetery, Emery discovered an ocean of American soldiers’ grave sites. One after another, one white marble cross after another, one story after another, buried so far away from their homes.
“They were all blank crosses,” recalled Emery, who spent the entire day there.
After three hours of searching, Emery finally tracked down Binks’ marker. She instinctively felt she had to decorate Binks’ empty gravesite. She began searching for stones to do just that, as well as find one for Betty.
Finally, near the back of the cemetery, she collected a few pebbles in her shirt. She organized them into the shape of a heart atop his grave. She also found a longer stone and she threw it several times against the ground to break it into two.
Half of that stone she placed into the middle of the heart. The other half she brought back home, for Betty. In her journal, Emery wrote, “... so you could feel you had been there and been part of it.”
Two months ago, Emery returned to Betty’s Crown Point home and gave her the broken-in-two stone, as well as other stones and a candle. She also gave her photos of Binks’ gravesite.
Betty cried. Emery cried. Everyone cried.
“It just brought everything back to mind,” Betty told me, her voice breaking with emotions that were rekindled after seven decades.
In turn, Betty showed Emery her wedding ring. Its gemstones include diamonds from Binks’ original engagement ring.
“Marissa is such a beautiful girl, inside and out. You hear so many negative stories about teenagers today and then, well, then there’s someone like Marissa. She just ... understands.”
Betty keeps the broken stone in the same glass jar Emery first placed it in.
“I keep it in a very special place,” Betty said. “Just where I always keep Binks in my heart.”
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