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For 70 years, she was by his side, until quarantine kept them apart

St. Petersburg couple traveled the world, founded a church, kept each other strong.

For the first few months, quarantine wasn’t so bad.

James and Dorothy Hair listened to National Geographic audio books, called their grandkids, sat on the screened porch at sunset.

Workers at their independent living facility delivered meals to their apartment. Their church live-streamed services. They took short, slow walks around their building in St. Petersburg, her guiding him on a walker.

They had their old cat — and each other. “We always said we could cope with anything as long as we had each other,” said Dorothy, 87.

They had been together for more than 70 years. While he served in the Army, she followed him around the world. Through 27 moves, two kids and 12 cats.

“Even those times he was in the hospital, I always stayed with him,” she said. “He had Parkinson’s disease and went blind a couple of years ago. I had to be his eyes. He was always calling, ‘Dorothy, where are you?’ I’d have to reassure him, ‘I’m right here beside you.’ "

And every morning, even during the lockdown, she rummaged through a box beneath their bed and helped her 89-year-old husband choose his socks. He had more than 350 pairs of wild, printed socks people had given him as presents.

“Everyone knew him as the sock man,” said Dorothy. “He was always showing his socks to strangers.”

In late July, James started having trouble breathing. Doctors gave him a pacemaker and sent him home. Five days later, he was back in the hospital with dehydration, kidney issues, pneumonia -- and what nurses feared might be the coronavirus.

This time, Dorothy couldn’t stay. “Even after they determined that it wasn’t the virus, they wouldn’t let me in to be with him,” she said. “He kept calling for me, asking where I was.”

He was supposed to be discharged Aug. 2 but took a turn and had to go into hospice. Dorothy brought a bag and planned to move into his room. But nurses made her go home.

“They told me I could only go back to be with him when he was imminent, at the very end,” she said. “I kept begging: ‘Please, we live together! Why can’t I be with him? He’s frightened. He needs me! This doesn’t have to be the end.’ "

***

James loved telling the story of how they met. “Over a bed,” he’d tell anyone who asked.

She was 13. Her parents ran the general store in rural Short Pump, Va. He was 15. His parents had just moved to town.

Somehow, during the move, a bed fell out of the truck. Dorothy’s mom took her daughter with her to deliver it to their new neighbors. “I knew the moment I saw him,” Dorothy said. “I told my mother, ‘That’s the man I’m going to spend my life with.’ "

In high school, they dated other people. But when the Korean War broke out, they decided to get married. “I don’t remember how he proposed,” Dorothy said. “There’s this picture of me on a porch swing and he’s on one knee, so that must’ve been it.”

They were 17 and 19. She wore a tan dress and yellow rose corsage to the wedding. He wore his new uniform.

Dorothy and James Hair married in Virginia on Sept. 16, 1950, three months after the Korean War started. She was 17. He was 19 and had just joined the National Guard. Soon, he would sign up for the Army. [ Photo courtesy of Dorothy Hair ]

Eventually, James was transferred to New Jersey, then Pennsylvania. Their daughter Susan, then son Robert, were born near Valley Forge.

Dorothy and the kids and always at least one cat followed James to England, to four tours in Germany. She worked on the bases, in human resources, running a child care center. “I loved it as much as he did,” she said. “It was always a great adventure, close the door and start another life. As long as we were together, everything was fine.”

During those seven decades, Dorothy and James only spent two years apart: One when he was in Korea, the other in Vietnam.

“We agreed on every move,” she said. “We were always a team.” Sometimes, she said, they fought. “Well, I fought,” she said. “He would never fight back. He was a kind, gracious soldier.”

James Hair served 36 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a command sergeant major. Here he is in Korea with a tank in 1970. [ Photo courtesy of Dorothy Hair ]

In 1965, James was ordained as a deacon to serve in military chapels. In 1977, he became a command sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank in the Army. He was awarded the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal.

When he retired in 1985, after 36 years, the military threw him a parade and more than 1,000 soldiers came to salute him. “He told everyone I served along with him,” Dorothy said.

While James was in the Army, Dorothy followed him around the world and raised their two children. They retired to Florida in 1985 and here, in 1990, enjoyed watermelon at a church picnic. [ Photo courtesy of Dorothy Hair ]

They bought a house in Tierra Verde, but James couldn’t sit still. He and Dorothy started serving as guardians for elderly people who didn’t have family. Over 18 years, they looked after 14 wards. “I did the paperwork,” she said, “he did the people part.”

He also volunteered at Palms of Pasadena Hospital, helping patients get to appointments.

In 1992, James contacted the Southern Baptist Convention and helped found the Island Chapel, where he was appointed a deacon. The new pastor and his wife became their best friends.

Mike Wetzel, the minister, started the sock craze. “He gave them to James for Christmas and dared him to wear them,” said his wife, Maria. “Little did we know that would become his calling card.”

“He had a mission,” said Dorothy. “He tried to compliment 10 people a day — without lying.”

As James got older, he grew even more outgoing. “He’d just walk up to people and start talking to them, people he didn’t even know,” said his son Robert.

His grandson Ben said, “He loved God, his country, his family, his pets and a good joke, probably in that order.”

Whenever anyone asked James how he was doing, he would smile and say, “I don’t know. Dorothy hasn’t told me yet.”

For seven decades, Dorothy and James Hair were inseparable. They raised two children, had three grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and recently, had a great-great-granddaughter. Here they are in their St. Petersburg apartment on their 69th wedding anniversary on Sept. 16, 2019. [ Photo courtesy of Dorothy Hair ]

***

When she got the call last week, Dorothy hurried to Suncoast Hospice’s Woodside facility. Her son and grandchildren met her there.

Only two people were allowed into James’ room at a time, so her grandsons waved from outside the window while her son and granddaughter took turns with her, by his side.

“You know you’re the love of my life,” Dorothy told her husband, bending over his bed last Wednesday. “I will always love you.”

His eyes were closed. His brow was hot.

She wasn’t sure he could hear her, or even knew she was there.

She soaked a washcloth in cool water and smoothed it on his forehead. She was holding it, staring at his face, when she saw him take his last breath.

“It broke my heart,” she said later. “All those long last days he was living in hell, all alone. If I’d been able to be there at his bedside, I could’ve protected him. He would’ve been able to rebound — and come home.

“The virus didn’t take him. But this was just as bad.”

Dorothy Hair, 87, plans services for her husband of almost 70 years last week at Anderson-McQueen Funeral Homes in St. Petersburg. Her grandson Ben Hair, 30, (left) and friend Maria Wetzel (right) came to help. James Hair, 89, died at Suncoast's Woodside Hospice on Aug. 12. [ LANE DEGREGORY | Times ]

James wanted to be buried in his dress uniform, Dorothy told the funeral director at Anderson-McQueen. “He should be wearing standard-issue black Army socks,” she said. “But no one will see them in the casket.”

Instead, she had brought a favorite pair: bright blue, with red stripes, emblazoned with ARMY. One last way she could help her husband, before she had to go home alone.

Contact Lane DeGregory at ldegregory@tampabay.com. Follow @LaneDeGregory.

Memorial service

Visitation for James Lewis Hair will be at The Island Chapel, 1271 Pinellas Bayway S, Tierra Verde on Friday, Aug. 21, from 9:30-10 a.m. The Celebration of Life Service will follow at the chapel and will be livestreamed on the church’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Religious-Organization/The-Island-Chapel-655295674583623/

Burial will be at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell at 2 p.m.

At James’ request, in lieu of flowers, please donate colorful, new men’s socks to homeless veterans through Volunteers of America and Heaven on Earth. Donations can be left at The Island Chapel or at Anderson McQueen Funeral Home in St. Petersburg.

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