From This Day: They were each other's first love — and the last

Published April 28 2012

She wore a light blue dress with a satin pleated skirt and a flattering, fitted black lace top. He wore a blue suit — the same suit he wore on all their dates — and sent her gardenias.

That was on their first date, back on the day of their junior prom at East Alton-Wood River High in Wood River, Ill., in 1945.

On March 10 this year in Tampa, 67 years later, she again wore a blue dress, this time pale ice blue embellished with little beads, the tiered skirt edged in silver.

They stood at the Jesuit High School chapel. A ring bearer carried the rings gently on a satin pillow. Her son sang, her grandsons played the piano. Her sister was maid of honor, and his brother was best man.

Bobby Ann Tarcza and Richard Stegemeier were getting married, 71 years after they first met in the eighth grade. She is quick to giggle that she married "an older man." Both are 83, but Richard is five months her senior.

On Wood River Avenue in Wood River, Bobby and Richard were neighbors. "A small city near St. Louis, where Mom made apple pies," said Bobby.

Eventually they went to the same high school. Around the time of their junior prom, classmates were setting up dates for each other, and someone asked Bobby, "Would you go with Richard?" When she said she would, Richard asked her to prom. It was his first date. They proceeded to date throughout their senior year.

"He's blushing," Bobby said as they recalled the events recently. "I was the first girl he kissed."

"We had to be in at 11 p.m.," she said, and only dated one day a week, when they would go to a show together. On weekdays, "He'd call me for 15 minutes," the limit her businessman father set on their phone calls.

Without telling Richard, she put him up for senior class president. He won. "We were unknown commodities to each other," Richard said. She helped him outgrow his shyness.

Bobby graduated No. 2 in her class and went to Northwestern University. Richard went to the School of Mines in Rolla, Mo. They wrote each other for a while, but at Northwestern, there were "12 boys to every girl," Bobby said. She decided to date. In 1952, after he graduated, Richard married a girl he had met in college. Bobby had found a boy, too, and they married in 1953.

They both enjoyed long, successful marriages, moving and having families. (Each had two boys and two girls.) They occasionally saw one another at high school reunions. Later, both were widowed.

In 2011, when Richard heard that Bobby had lost her husband, he decided to call her to offer his condolences. From a high school classmate, he learned her married name and that she lived in Tampa. He wasn't sure if he'd find her in the phone book. Lucky for him, there were only three entries with her name. He called the first number, and it was disconnected. "That was a dry run," he said. Looking on the Internet, he found two other Tarczas and called one.

"That's my mother," answered Wally Tarcza, who gave Richard her number.

He called Bobby right away. "We took up where we left off," said Richard. In November, Richard was visiting his daughter in South Carolina and traveled to Florida to see Bobby. "We talked and talked and talked," Bobby said.

In January, Bobby visited Anaheim, Calif., where Richard lived. She stayed at his home. "There was a housekeeper, we were well chaperoned," Bobby quickly pointed out.

"We had more in common than we would have ever believed," said Richard. "We realized we weren't high school kids anymore."

From there, he said, "It happened like lightning."

During that visit, Bobby and Richard decided they should get married.

"When you admire someone and are with them for a while, and are having really good times . . . We knew we were right for each other," Richard said.

"We decided we should spend the rest of our lives together," he said. This was no light decision for a couple who each had been married close to half a century. "When we make a commitment to marry, we both marry for life." When she returned to Florida, Richard sent Bobby gardenias.

At their wedding last month, all their children and most of their grandchildren were there to celebrate. "It was such a meaningful, beautiful event," Bobby said. Even more meaningful than that first prom date.

"We're living our happily ever after."

Nourhan Elsayed is an IB senior at St. Petersburg High and a staff writer for tb-two*, the Times' weekly newspaper for high schools, where this story first appeared.