Steve and Denise Saunders ... Valentine's Day special: "How we met"

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Denise and Steve Saunders attended their junior prom "Shangri-la," together, and in later years Denise wore the same dress for their 50th wedding anniversary photo. (Photo submitted)

Denise (left) and Steve Saunders stand in front of their 1967 Mustang and first apartment located in Clarksville, Tenn., outside of Ft. Campbell. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

Steve and Denise Saunders, 76, of Garnavillo were born a day and a half apart. They could have been nursery mates, but Steve was born in Monroe, Wis., and Denise was born in Beloit, Wis.

"Our small hometown, Brodhead, Wis., had no hospital and our moms chose different ones," they began. 

Love at first sight?

They attended the same school from kindergarten through 12th grade and remained in the same class throughout.  "I was in love with Steve when I was in first grade so I made him a May basket and left it by his front door," Denise commented.

"My mother opened the door and scattered the May basket candy all over the porch!" he shared.

"All I could think about was how he was going to run out and kiss me when he saw his basket," she laughed.

Seated across from each other in first grade, they had to hold hands during morning fingernail check.

Denise remembered that Steve was standing by on the playground during 5th grade recess when she slipped on the ice and knocked her front teeth out.  At the time he paid no attention to girls and barely noticed  the incident.

Caught his eye

"I became interested in Denise in high school," he recalled. "It was around Halloween of our sophomore year. We were with friends soaping windows and getting candy.  We dated for our junior prom—'Shangri-la' was the theme."

The teens dated on and off and became more serious during their senior year. Steve joined the Army immediately after graduation in June 1965.  Denise attended a technical college in Minneapolis to become a lab technician.  They became engaged during Steve’s leave in January 1966. In June 1966 Steve left for one year of combat duty in Vietnam. The couple wrote to each other regularly and their relationship endured.

Let’s get married

"We married within a few weeks after I returned home from Vietnam," Steve told The Press.  "I remember that we said, 'Let’s get married!'"

There was little time to plan. One year remained on Steve’s enlistment and he was ordered to report soon to Ft. Campbell, Ky., astride the Tennessee border. "I had wanted a September wedding, but our wedding day was advanced to June," Denise shared.  "It was a miserable hot, humid, rainy day."

"I got serious cold feet the night before," Steve added. "We had no money and matters were unsettled for our country. It was wartime for us."

"I told him, It’s too late now!" she laughed.

Their simple wedding was held at St. Rose Catholic Church in Brodhead with a brief coffee and cake reception in the church basement.

Denise left her job as a lab technician at the Monroe, Wis., clinic as the couple left for Ft. Campbell.  Their honeymoon was the day and a half trip there.  

"My unit was on combat ready alert so when I arrived I was ordered to stand by for immediate deployment—the Six Day War," Steve remembered.  "The move was cancelled, but shortly afterwards my outfit deployed to Detroit for the race riots. They plagued many cities that summer.”

His unit left without any notice to the troops. The family car was parked on base so Steve flew out with his wallet and their only car keys in this pocket.  Denise had no money and was unacquainted with anyone as yet.

"Honestly, I didn’t think much of it.  I did not panic.  I guess I was in denial and naïve.  Nothing surprised me in those days," said Denise.

A few months later the Army transferred Steve to Ft. Bragg, NC.

"It was an edgy time with frequent combat alerts. The Tet Offensive, the MLK and JFK assassinations and a series of serious riots and protests.  There was no time off," he recalled. 

Supporting each other

Steve was discharged in 1968. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison for undergraduate school then earned a law degree at Creighton in Omaha. Always an equal partner, Denise bore the financial burden by employment at laboratories at Madison and Omaha.

Later in life Steve wrote two books about his Vietnam experience titled Breaking Squelch: A Vietnam Introspective and Dead Reckoning.

The couple settled in Garnavillo in 1975 to begin their family. "We have three beautiful successful daughters, our pride and joy. They married wonderful men and have blessed us with seven granddaughters," they shared.

Denise returned to college at age 41 to pursue a teaching career at Upper Iowa University. "After earning a degree I took a guidance counselor job at MFL in Monona and attended night classes at Platteville for a master’s degree," she explained.  "Our kids were still in school at the time. Steve was ‘the wind beneath my wings’ encouraging me. He insisted that my schooling would be a positive example to our girls."

Secret to happiness

Married for 57 years, the Saunders shared their secrets for a happy healthy marriage. "We have always supported and motivated one another and ‘made do’ with what we had.  We try to care for ourselves physically by remaining active.  We’ve never had a really serious fight.  We came of age in the same era and culture and have mutual lifetime friends," they recited. 

Their many shared activities included marathon running, back-country camping, camping and canoeing in the mountain west and (Denise only) RAGBRAI.  Steve added, “Denise’s adventurousness cooled after a very close encounter with a grizzly sow and two cubs.  Another time she was charged by a black bear – a bluff charge.  She was well bluffed.”

The young-at-heart couple love to dance to 1950s and 60s rock-n-roll music. “We are headed  to the Buddy Holly Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake this weekend. Three fun-filled days of rock-n-roll music and dance with others who share our enthusiasm,” they concluded with a smile.

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