CONWAY — When Bob Brooks walked into the American Red Cross office in Höchst,
Germany, just outside Frankfort, in the early spring of 1947, he had no idea he would meet the love of his life. But the young American soldier from West Virginia knew Helen Wagner, the young German girl working there as a translator, was the one for him.
“It was love at first sight,” Bob said. “That very first day we met, we knew it was special.”
Bob and Helen will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary on Tuesday.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do to celebrate,” Helen said, laughing. “Our children tell us, ‘Don’t worry. It’s all taken care of.’”
“We’ve heard that before,” Bob said, smiling.
Helen said they are not sure who will be coming to celebrate with them. Their younger daughter, Susan Vahle, and her family live in Conway — that’s the reason Bob and Helen moved to Conway 13 years ago — so they are sure to be a part of the celebration. And the Brookses know their other two children and at least some of their family members will be attending as well. Their older daughter, Christine Canty Brooks, lives in Augusta, Maine, with her husband, Joel Canty, and their son, George Brooks lives in Moss Landing, California, with his wife, Kris. Bob and Helen also have six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Bob grew up in West Virginia and attended school there “up to 11th grade,” he said.
“I wanted to join the Army, but I was only 17, and my mother wouldn’t sign for me until I turned 18,” he said. “[World War II] had been over for a month [in late 1945]. I went ahead and signed up for the draft in 1945, and one week later, I was in the Army.
“The troops [in Europe] were wanting to come home and they needed troops to relieve them [in occupied countries such as Germany, Austria and Japan],” he said. “I had basic training for about six weeks and was told if I wanted to stay in for three years, I would have to pick a country to go to. I picked Germany.
“I was an MP (military police) when I arrived in Germany,” he said. “As MPs, we were patrolling all over the area, and I walked into the Red Cross building. There was Helen. It was love at first sight.”
Helen said she noticed Bob immediately.
“He sat down at the piano and began playing ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ with one finger,” she said, laughing. “I thought, ‘There’s just one more idiot.’
“I asked him where he was from and when the last time was that he had written home,” she said. “I told him, ‘Write your mother.’
“We were just kids,” Helen said. “We were both 20 when we married. Our birthdays are just one month and one day apart. Mine is Nov. 29, and his is Dec. 30. You can say we are both 91 now.”
Helen said their first “date” was a trip to the movies.
“We saw Carnival in Costa Rica with Dick Haymes,” she said, and pointed out the entry in a memory book from their 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
Helen said in order to get married, they had to get permission from their parents because they were not 21, and from Bob’s commander because she was a native German.
“So we didn’t see each other often before we married,” Helen said.
They were married Dec. 11, 1948, by a Catholic military chaplain in the chapel at St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Frankfurt.
“I wanted to be married in the small German Catholic Church in the town where I grew up, but I knew [the wedding ceremony] would all be in German, and Bob’s German was not the best,” Helen said, noting that she learned English in school because it was mandatory.
“And I wanted him to understand every word he was promising me,” she said, laughing. “He wore his uniform. I wore a lace dress and carried a bouquet of lilacs. Bob’s mother sent me a veil she had ordered from Sears.”
Bob’s military career took them all over the world.
“We lived in 23 places in 30 years,” said Helen, who became an American citizen in the early 1950s. “And they were major moves … not just around the corner.
“Bob was transferred two more times back to Germany, so I was able to go back home for a while and see my parents,” Helen said. “After Bob and I married, they came to see us two times, and my mother, who did not speak English, came once by herself. And after our children were grown and out on their own, and when my parents were still alive, I would go home once a year and stay two or three weeks.
“I have lots of good memories of Germany,” she said. “I still keep in touch with some of my elementary school girlfriends and some cousins in Germany. We talk on the phone at least once a week.”
Bob retired from the Army in 1975 after 30 years of service; he retired as a chief warrant officer 3. He said he spent the last 18 years of his career working with the Nike Hercules surface-to-air missile system.
“Luckily, we never used those missiles in Vietnam or Korea, so I didn’t have to go there,” Bob said.
The couple retired to Chico, California, where they lived 28 years before moving to Conway.
When asked what the secret to a long marriage might be, Helen said, “Well, first you made a commitment before God and all your relatives.
“A sense of humor helps, too,” she said, smiling.
Bob was asked the same question.
“I do exactly what she tells me do to,” he said, laughing.