After 66 years of marriage, Walter and Esther Kleinsasser of Hillsboro need not explain how commitment has kept them together, but the way their eyes sparkle and hands touch each other as they recall special times is evidence enough that they are happy, even after all those years.
Now age 90 and 94, Walter and Esther still remember the day they met in Chicago, Ill., when he was 23 and she was 28.
“I went there to visit my cousin Gloria,” Walter said. “And I went back many times after that to visit Gloria, at least when I knew Esther would be there.”
Esther lived and worked as a teacher in South Dakota, but she often went to visit her childhood friend in Chicago, who just happened to be a close relative of Walter.
“We grew up in the same community in South Dakota, our families knew each other, and they all knew us,” Walter said. “I guess they encouraged us to get together.”
Though South Dakota was where they started out life, Walter moved to California when he was 12-years-old and the Dust Bowl displaced his family.
“The dust storms blew us out,” he said. “What cattle survived didn’t stay home. The dust piled up so high they just walked right over the fences in search of something to eat.”
Walter’s father knew someone in California who needed help on a ranch, so that is where most of the family moved.
Some family members stayed behind, but Walter, one of 12 children, was educated and spent the rest of his growing up years in California.
Since Esther was four years older, Walter did not remember much about her when they both still lived in South Dakota.
“It wasn’t until we met in Chicago that I noticed her,” he said.
“By that time, I was in the army, stationed in South Carolina, so I didn’t really get to see her often.”
Walter did not let long distance come between him and the girl with whom he found he shared many common interests. He wrote her a letter every day for the following year and a half.
He even sent her an engagement ring by mail, which she accepted.
“It helped that I knew his family,” Esther said. “By that time I was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in South Dakota. I even had some of his nieces and nephews in my class. They all kind of helped keep me informed of how he was doing.”
Esther had a much smaller family with only one older brother and a sister. Her parents were quite a bit older than some parents were, so she was raised mostly by her brother who was a coach and avid athlete.
“He broke the world record in the 100-yard dash running for Yankton University in 1931,” Walter said.
“I grew up immersed in all kinds of sports,” Esther said. “My brother took me to all his sports events and that’s pretty much all we talked about.”
For Walter, Esther’s sports knowledge was a dream come true.
“He liked having a girl who could talk sports with him,” Esther said. “We still like to watch sports together.”
Athletics remained an important part of the couple’s lives, even when they moved to Kansas and took positions at Tabor College in Hillsboro.
“I taught sociology and psychology for 30 years,” Walter said. “And I always participated in intramurals like basketball, track, and baseball.”
Esther also worked for 30 years at Tabor College, serving as the business manager’s secretary and as a telephone operator.
“I was one of the first people visitors to the college would see,” she said. “It was my job to know where to send them and who they needed to see.”
The Kleinsassers only lived one block from the college, so during their years of work there they always went home to eat lunch together.
“We’ve spent a lot of time together,” Esther said. “It really does pass quickly though.”
In addition to sharing a love of sports, the couple spent time with church and music activities together. They were married in Bethel Church in South Dakota, but attended a small country church called Ebenezer. Once they moved to Hillsboro, they became participating members at Parkview Mennonite Brethren Church.
“I directed church choirs wherever we were attending,” Esther said. “And Walter sang.”
Walter and Esther passed on their love of sports, church activities, and music to their two children, now grown, Joseph (a 40-year basketball referee) and Faith (a long-term missionary with World Impact).
“Our children and grandchildren, they keep us young,” Esther said.
Walter and Esther now share a room at Salem Home. The passage of time has touched Esther with bouts of dementia and Walter with complications of a stroke, but nothing can lessen the commitment they feel towards each other, and the joy of common interests they still share.