Editor’s Note: Senior Showcase, sponsored in part by Nye Health Services, is a weekly feature that will appear in the Tribune each Wednesday through Nov. 14. In December, the Fremont Tribune will publish a keepsake publication full of the stories in the series.
When Dean Gerdts, now 85, entered the Fremont Friendship Center in 2013, he was looking for companionship.
He found a wife.
It was the third Tuesday of April in 2013, during one of the Friendship Center’s potluck dinners.
Her name was Coralee, and she was sitting over at table number three.
“When he came, he started at table one, and I found out months after we’d been married, that he told them he came looking for a wife,” Coralee, 75, recalls, laughing. “I was at table three. So it took him a while.”
Dean shrugs his shoulders and smiles.
“It worked,” he argued.
During that first conversation, Dean recalls being “very careful and cautious,” afraid he could chase her off. But something sparked between them. He spoke about his life as a blacksmith, and his love of collecting old military vehicles—both of which were topics that Coralee knew little about. But he was also equally interested in hearing about Coralee’s knitting. She’s been sewing since she was seven, taking part in many craft shows along the way.
“He was interesting,” Coralee said. “He was very different from anyone I liked to talk to.”
The pair had both endured painful times.
Dean was born in Lincoln but grew up in Mead, where his family had a blacksmith shop. He moved to Fremont in the ’40s and graduated from Fremont High School in 1950. He joined the air force after graduating and served for three years. When he finished, he went to LeTourneau University in Texas to perfect his abilities as a blacksmith.
In his ’30s, he met his first wife, Lois. She was from Missouri. Dean remembers how his parents cared for her, and recalls fondly how on the day of their wedding, they went to a Nebraska-Missouri football game.
“We whooped Missouri 30-something to nothing,” Dean said, smiling.
The couple spent 40 years together and adopted two kids.
But in 2008, Lois died. And after 40 years of marriage, Dean fell into a bout of loneliness. That’s what brought him to the Friendship Center that day in 2013.
Coralee, meanwhile, spent the first eight years of school going to a country school northwest of a Fremont — “she’s a farm gal,” Dean said. She moved into Fremont for high school and graduated from Fremont High in 1960. She attended the Lincoln School of Commerce and did accounts payable work for a while.
With her first husband, who also served in the air force, she spent time living in on an air force base in Puerto Rico in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. After her husband’s service, they moved back to Fremont and had three kids. Later, they got divorced.
Coralee found love again in 2006 when she met a man named Marvin at the Friendship Center. They became a couple until six years later when Marvin died.
Dean’s arrival a few years later came at the perfect time for Coralee, says Laurie Harms, manager of the Friendship Center.
“I think Coralee had gone through some really tough times, and it was a good time for her to meet somebody else,” she said. “I remember the first time they talked right over there, right at that table, for probably two and a half hours.”
After their first conversation at the Friendship Center, things moved quickly between Dean and Coralee. Later that week, they went on a date to Red Lobster in Omaha.
“He was very polite, very considerate,” Coralee recalls. “He introduced me to everybody that walked by, as his first date with me. The busboys, all of the waiters, whether they were ours are not. He was very much a character.”
“I was very pleased to have a nice looking lady like this go out with me,” Dean said.
Three weeks after their first meeting, and the couple had grown incredibly close, sitting next to each other and speaking for hours each day at the Friendship Center. It was around then that Dean took the leap of faith—he proposed to Coralee, and she said yes.
Coralee said that she knew he’d propose at some point, but was surprised it happened so early. A few months later, they had a wedding in the community room of the Fremont Friendship Center—a recognition of the place where they first met. About 100 people came, including family and friends. Some came from a group of other military vehicle collectors that Dean is part of. After the ceremony was over, one pulled Coralee over with a message: “you’re one of us now.”
Five years later, the couple is still going strong.
“It was like there was a magnetism between his heart and mine,” Coralee said.
“For once in my life, I was smart enough that when I encountered something worthwhile, I grabbed it … I hate being alone. We get along amazingly well for a couple of hard-headed old clunks,” Dean said. “I have been one totally, lucky blessed man to get over a period of years two great women to put up with me. As far as I’m concerned, you’re looking at one of the luckiest guys around.”