Couple celebrates nearly half a century of love
If Agnes Haiss hadn’t forgiven that red-haired upstart, Bill Leonard, for taking her spot in a Bronx bowling league nearly 50 years ago, there’s a good chance the couple might not be spending this Valentine’s Day reminiscing about their half-century love affair.
“I had to travel by subway and the train was slow,” said Agnes in an East Coast accent that almost 10 years in Douglas County can’t begin to dilute. “I got there by the second frame and there was this red-head in my spot.”
The red-head was 21-year-old Bill Leonard, the bowling alley’s pin setter.
“He said, ‘Do you want to bowl?’ and I said, ‘No, it’s all right,'” said Agnes, reliving the moment as if it were yesterday. “He bowled the whole night through.”
A little later, Bill asked her out, but she turned him down.
“I told him, ‘Sorry, I already have a date,'” Agnes recalled.
He persisted, and their first date was Nov. 4, 1950. Seven months later they were married.
“We just clicked,” said Agnes, adding the real clincher, “and my Mom just loved him.”
The young couple lived on Long Island. Bill worked for a bank and Agnes was employed by the telephone company. Then the children started coming.
From the earliest days of their relationship, they both knew family would be important. Agnes was one of nine children, but Bill was shuffled among relatives after his mother died when he was 2-1/2.
“I wanted six children and she wanted seven, so we compromised on nine,” Bill laughed.
Patricia, Kathleen, James, Theresa, Thomas, Richard, Ann Marie and Elizabeth arrived within a 10-year period. Three years passed. Bill and Agnes won a trip to Bermuda. The family welcomed Michael nine months later.
n Across the river. The Leonards lived in a four-room apartment until Agnes was pregnant with their sixth child. They bought a house and moved across the river to New Jersey.
During this time, Bill was working on a college degree, attending classes at night and studying on weekends. Agnes took all the kids outside so the house would be quiet.
“I had the best weeded garden on the block,” she laughed.
Today they marvel at how they fed 11 people on $50 a week and shared a one-bathroom house. Agnes made up a chart for all the kids’ chores, and they drew their names out of a bucket.
“My boys could cook and sew and clean as well as the girls,” Agnes said.
They wore hand-me-down clothes and shared everything. At Christmas time, the Leonard kids were lucky to get two gifts each. Every night, they prayed together as a family.
“We never felt deprived,” Agnes said, “And today, my children are so close. They are always there for us and each other.”
Bill worked 43 years in banking and Agnes went back to the telephone company when their youngest was in kindergarten. In the mid-1980s, they retired and followed Patricia and Tom out West. The Leonards lived at Lake Tahoe for a couple of years, but the snow drove them to the Carson Valley where they bought a home in the Gardnerville Ranchos in the mid-1990s.
This half-century union has laid the groundwork for the Leonards’ greatest challenge. For the past 21 months, Bill has been battling cancer, which began in his liver and spread to his spine and shoulder. When the cancer was diagnosed in April 1998, Bill was told he had six to eight months to live.
n Unshakable faith. The Leonards credit daily prayer, an unshakable faith and an aggressive approach to treatment with their success in beating the doctor’s prediction.
“It’s drawn Agnes and me and the children closer together,” Bill said.
They are devout Catholics and members of St. Gall Catholic Church.
“I’ve been very fortunate that I have had no real pain. Every time more cancer turns up, I get radiation, so far, so good,” said Bill, who will be 72 at the end of the month.
They’ve seen 22 doctors and traveled as far away as Mexico for treatment. He changed his diet and has lost 30 pounds. His well-worn wedding ring is so loose, it threatens to slip over his knuckle. Agnes has some trouble with her eyesight, but after a lifetime together, she’s not going to surrender a moment of care for Bill unless she has to.
Remember, the Leonard clan sticks together.
“The children take turns coming out to see him and I keep after him,” she said. “I don’t want him to give up.”
They take each other’s hand and sit close together for a photograph.
“It’s day-to-day,” Bill said. “At times, it’s a struggle. We don’t let the little things that used to bother us aggravate us anymore. We’ve made our peace with each other.”
Every day is a gift.
“Each morning when we get up, I think God is saying, ‘Well, I’ll let him stay a little longer,'” Agnes said.
The Leonards’ 50th wedding anniversary is June 30, 2001.
“If I make it, it will be great,” Bill said. “We’re planning a family reunion back East.”