ST. PETE BEACH — Julius Stewart and Angie Lee Burnham were childhood friends who moved away and married other people.
Both their spouses died young, and of unusual causes — his wife to a gas leak; her husband to a German U-boat.
The old friends reunited and wed shortly after World War II. They were together 64 years, until death separated them last week.
They died a day apart. Mr. Stewart, who was 90, died Saturday. Mrs. Stewart, who was 92, died Sunday.
"I think they decided that they were meant to be together," said son Lee Stewart. "They almost knew what each other was going to say or do. It was sort of like a communication that you didn't see."
The couple met as children in New Orleans. Both were raised Lutheran and abstained from alcohol their whole lives. As a young man, Mr. Stewart returned from his job as a machinist to find his wife, their child and his wife's mother dead. Authorities blamed asphyxiation from a gas leak.
He enlisted in the Army, where he saw more death in France and Germany. "He saw a lot of people killed beside him, on both sides of him and everywhere," said Ken Herman, Mr. Stewart's stepson.
He had at least one thing to look forward to — letters from his childhood friend, Angie Lee.
She, too, had suffered. On Feb. 27, 1942, a German submarine sank the Merchant Marine vessel R.P. Resor off the New Jersey coast, killing most of the crew — including her husband.
Their letters intensified. By the time Mr. Stewart returned from the war, marriage seemed a foregone conclusion. They tied the knot in 1945, and settled in Memphis; Mr. Stewart became a stepfather of her 8-year-old son and they went on to have one of their own.
As parents, the Stewarts dealt with their losses matter-of-factly. "They were happy with the way things were," said Herman, 72. "Outwardly they didn't grieve. But inwardly, you always remember things like that."
They had their differences. Mr. Stewart towered over his 5-foot-1 wife. He reveled in tools and machine parts, which he kept organized in a backyard shed he was always improving.
She painted Spanish moss and water wheels, and filled the house with her replicas of antique porcelain dolls.
Yet they enjoyed the same things, like weekend car trips and games of canasta that started after dinner and lasted for hours. Though neither was musically inclined, they supported Ken's music lessons and indulged his teenage friends, most of whom went on to become famous.
"Johnny Cash. Carl Perkins. Roy Orbison. Charlie Rich. Elvis. All of them. Mama knew all of them. Daddy did, too," said Herman, a record producer.
Mr. Stewart retired after 20 years from General Electric, where he had made Christmas tree lights, with a job-related disability. His wife worked at Sears as a regional credit manager until the early 1980s.
She painted in retirement. He made the frames for her artwork. "They didn't talk much about their bond," said Lee Stewart, 62. "You just knew it was there."
The couple moved into Herman's 19th-century St. Pete Beach cottage in 2002. Mrs. Stewart painted sea oats and invited neighbors in to see her dolls.
Her dementia worsened about two years ago. Mr. Stewart cared for her. But his strength was fading.
As happens in families, the sons made a pitch to Mr. Stewart: What about assisted living? A live-in caregiver?
"He said, 'Look,' " Herman recalled. " 'Sixty-four years ago, (a minister) asked me if I'd take care of her in sickness and health, and I said, 'I do.' And I still do.'
"I shut up then," Herman said.
Mrs. Stewart fell a month ago. She had hip replacement surgery at Edward White Hospital but did not improve. Her condition continued to worsen at Kindred Hospital.
Her living will ruled out a feeding tube. That left only one option. Mrs. Stewart entered into Woodside Hospice three weeks ago.
Her husband asked about her every day. Her sons hedged. "We never told him outright that she wasn't going to make it," Lee Stewart said. "But I think he sensed it."
No sooner had Mrs. Stewart been at Woodside than Mr. Stewart said that he, too, needed to go to the hospital. Doctors at Palms of Pasadena Hospital could find nothing wrong.
He returned twice more with dizzy spells and a decreasing appetite. By Thursday, he could no longer stand. He died at 2 a.m. Saturday, after surgery to insert a feeding tube.
Mrs. Stewart died at Woodside Hospice on Sunday at 11 p.m.
"He knew Mama was going," Herman said. "He wasn't going to stay around if she wasn't going to. She said, 'He's getting ready, so I'll get ready, too.'
"Ain't nobody going to convince me of anything else."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]