Leonard Zemp went out with Juanita Johnson the first time he ventured into Little Rock. He would only have one more date with her before they began planning their wedding.
Leonard and Nita Zemp have been married for almost 70 years. “She says the Lord put us together and I guess that’s right because other than when we lost our son we have had a fantastic life,” Leonard says.
Leonard grew up in Pawnee, Okla., and was inducted into the Army at Fort Chaffee before being sent to Camp Robinson in the spring of 1945.
He had been there four weeks before finally getting a leave pass, and he eagerly boarded a bus full of military men headed for Little Rock. One of the men riding with him had worked on a railroad route between Little Rock and Oklahoma City before joining the Army, so he was familiar with the area. He wanted to know where Leonard was going.
"I said, 'Listen, I don't even know what Little Rock looks like,' and he said, 'Let's go out to Fair Park,'" says Leonard, then 21.
They took the bus to the end of the line and then got on a trolley.
"As soon as we got off the trolley we saw the merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel and directly across from the Ferris wheel were three young ladies," Leonard says. "My friend said, 'You see that little blue-eyed girl over there?' and I said, 'Yes sir.' And he said, 'You're going to marry her someday.' Marriage was completely out of my mind at that time. But I thought well, I'm going to go over there and find out about her."
''Nita'' was a regular at Fair Park.
"My girlfriends and I went every Friday night and spent our paycheck there," she says.
Leonard asked her to ride the Ferris wheel and she enthusiastically accepted.
"I'm scared to death of those suckers. I'm just terrified," Leonard confesses. "I guess the macho took hold of me and we got on it."
They got their picture taken for 25 cents at the photo booth and walked around together the rest of the evening. Leonard rode the trolley to Nita's stop and walked her home.
Before he trekked four or five more blocks alone to catch the bus back to Camp Robinson, he asked if she would go out with him again the next weekend. They saw a movie on their second date and they made arrangements for a third date.
Their third date wasn't to be, though, because Leonard got his orders to pack up and ship out just a couple of days later. He only had a chance to call and let her know he was leaving before he started his journey to Manila, Philippines.
They wrote to each other and when Leonard's discharge came through, his first mission as a civilian was to make his way back to Nita. He bought a 1935 Chevrolet coupe in Pawnee and drove all day to get to the boardinghouse where he had last seen her.
Nita wasn't there.
The landlady, though, recognized his name from all the letters he had sent. She told him Nita was in Quitman helping her aunt, who had just had a baby. She had left four days earlier.
"I said, 'Well, OK, but where in the Sam Hill is Quitman, Ark.?' She said, 'Well, I don't know but I suggest you get a map,''' Leonard says.
He did, and the next morning he left to find his beloved, which proved to be harder than anticipated. He stopped several times asking for direction to the Johnsons' house and was told it was "a little piece" away from this landmark or that, which he discovered was as likely to be 30 miles as it was three.
Late that Friday afternoon, following numerous failed attempts to find the right Johnsons and a plea to the postmaster, Leonard made it to her aunt's house. Nita was scrubbing diapers on a washboard.
Leonard hadn't been sure how he and Nita would feel when they saw each other again after all that time, but they raced into each other's arms and all question faded.
Nita's father knew a judge in Conway who helped them get a marriage license quickly, in less than the required three days, so they could marry and make it back to Pawnee in time for Leonard to start a new job the following Monday.
They exchanged their vows on Sunday, Nov. 3, 1946, with Nita's uncle, a justice of the peace, officiating.
The newlyweds lived in Pawnee for a while, then moved to Ponca City, where Leonard started a 36-year career with Continental Oil Co. Their son, Gary, worked for that company for many years, as well. Gary Zemp died two years ago.
The Zemps, who moved to Conway 11 years ago, have two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Leonard never got a solid answer from his friend about why he announced their marriage before they met.
"He said, 'I don't know. I guess y'all were about the same height.' We're short people," Leonard says.
Nita thinks it was all arranged by a higher power.
"I always thought that the Lord put us together," she says. "I still think that and I will always believe that."
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The first time I saw my future spouse:
She says: “I thought he was kind, courteous and a lot of fun. I fell in love with him immediately.”
He says: “I thought, ‘She’s got terrific blue eyes. And she’s probably way too good for me. But I want to try.’”
On our wedding day:
She says: “It was the happiest day of my life. I had no intention of getting married, not right then anyway. And he had no intention. But the love bug hit me immediately.”
He says: “Her uncle’s wife said, ‘Juanita will be back home pretty soon. That won’t last.’ They didn’t know me and I didn’t know any of them and I was dragging that lady off so far. She trusted me.”
My advice for a long happy marriage:
She says: “Be yourself, whatever you are. And be willing to listen. I would say don’t go to bed mad, but I have a few times. Mainly, respect each other and talk to each other, regardless of what it’s about. And always let them know that you love them.”
He says: “You’ve got to trust each other. And people don’t want to give up when they get in an argument. What the heck difference does it make who won or who lost?”
High Profile on 10/23/2016
Print Headline: He found lifelong love by Fair Park Ferris wheel