Ruthie Schmitz had a crush on Harold “Doc” Knapke in the third grade, but their courtship didn’t begin earnest until they became pen pals during Doc’s service in Germany during World War II. When the young Army lieutenant came home from the war, “I let him chase me until I caught him!” the ever-sassy Ruth would later quip.
They would have celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary Aug. 20, but the devoted pair died on the same day — Sunday, Aug. 11 — in the room they shared in a Versailles nursing home.
“It is really just a love story,” said their daughter, Carol Romie of Centerville. “They were so committed and loyal and dedicated, they weren’t going to go anywhere without the other one.”
It’s the kind of love rarely celebrated in movies, music or popular culture, where the romance usually ends in the flush of youth and passion. Who cares about the gritty details of everyday life, or the fortitude it takes to maintain a loving marriage for nearly 66 years?
A photo taken in June tells the story: Doc is napping in his bed, but still holding hands with Ruth through the slats of the guard rail.
Daughter Margaret Knapke of Dayton also doesn’t believe the timing of her parents’ deaths is coincidental. In her Aug. 16 eulogy at their joint funeral Mass, Knapke said, “In recent years, we often speculated that Dad was still here, in this life, because of Mom. It seemed that, even though his health and strength were so very diminished, he couldn’t stop being her protector; it seemed he didn’t want to leave her behind.”
Their mother had been somewhat more robust in recent years, and the family assumed they would lose their father first. “He willed himself to live,” Margaret said. “He was a very loving, loyal person. He was very protective of her.”
Ruth developed a severe infection during the last week of her life. When her breathing became loud and labored, her children felt compelled to warn their father that she wasn’t going to make it. “When it became clear that Mom was dying – and Dad understood that — he spent a mostly sleepless night,” Margaret said. “The next day, Friday, there was a certain calm about him, and he began to fail rapidly. As you might know, Dad died 11 hours before Mom did — both of them on Sunday — and we believe he did that as a final act of love for her. We believe he wanted to accompany her out of this life and into the next one, and he did.”
Noted the Knapkes’ daughter Pat Simon of Russia, Ohio, “Mom and Dad taught me that being patient when things aren’t perfect is important, be willing to compromise, and that marriage is a constant work in action — you never stop working at it because if you do, it will fail. Also, through example, I learned that supporting your spouse and being devoted to God are so important in a marriage. Dad would bless Mom each night with Holy Water after the caregivers would tuck her in bed. This showed me his strong faith and convictions.”
They were devout Catholics who raised their children to be devout Catholics, yet they respected their six children as individuals with their own belief systems and choices. “We are all over the political and theological spectrum,” Margaret said. “Both of them had a fundamental trust in all of us, and trusted our good intentions even if they didn’t see things the way we did.”
Margaret, a longtime social justice activist, didn’t want her parents to worry about her when she made her first trip to Nicaragua in 1984. Her mother told her, “A person can get killed crossing the street. It’s important to take risks for what you believe.”
That philosophy was tested more severely in 2000, when Margaret served a three-month sentence for trespassing at the School of Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. She was protesting the U.S.-run School of the Americas, which has trained the likes of Manuel Noriega to Roberto D’Aubuisson, leader of El Salvador’s death squads. “They were both very supportive,” Margaret said. “They never tried to talk me out of it, never shamed me.”
Doc Knapke was a well-known Fort Recovery community. He was a star basketball player in high school who attended the University of Dayton on a basketball scholarship and was later inducted into the Fort Recovery Athletic Hall of Fame and the Fort Recovery Alumni Hall of Fame. He was a teacher, principal, coach, and athletic director at Fort Recovery Schools. He never lost his love for sports; as the ever-saucy Ruth once quipped, “If it has a ball in it, he’ll watch it.”
The dual loss has been hard on the family — their six children, 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. “It’s a double whammy for us, but it’s also a tremendous relief, because we don’t have to worry about one of them surviving the other and going through that pain,” Margaret said.
“Mom and Dad loved God and prayed faithfully to Him every day,” concurred Pat, a nurse who was primary caretaker for her parents during their final years.”In return God blessed them with an awesome answer to our prayers by letting them pass together on the same day.”
Six granddaughters carried Ruth’s casket; five grandsons and a grandson-in-law carried Doc’s. On the way to St. Mary’s Cemetery, the funeral procession stopped in front of the 1936 wood-frame farm house where the couple raised six children who took delight in transforming . As a surprise to the family, current owners Mitchell and Tammy Leuthold flew the flag at half-mast in honor of the Knapkes.
Observed Margaret, “I like to think that they are embarking on their next adventure together, and I believe that they are.”