Pittsfield couple's hearts still aflutter on 80th Valentine's Day together
PITTSFIELD — In the nearly 75 years that Bernard Auge has been married to his high school sweetheart, Eleanor, he has learned that the keys to any successful relationship are sacrifice and friendship.
"It all boils down to sharing," he said from a love seat in the Pittsfield home the couple has shared for more than 60 years. "And having faith in each other, and sacrificing for each other, and you've got to love each other."
Today is the 80th Valentine's Day that Bernie and Ellie Auge have spent together since they met at a party their freshman year at Drury High School.
These days, the couple doesn't get out very often, so, unlike Valentine's Days past, when they'd celebrate with a night of dancing, they will likely spend a quiet night together at home.
But there will definitely be carnations, Bernie said, because those are Ellie's favorite flower.
In every meeting at the couple's home and in phone calls, Bernie talks about his wife with nothing but appreciation and love, crediting her for all his successes in life.
In their early days of dating, the two high school athletes and best friends would meet up after school for hot dogs at Jack's Hot Dog Stand in North Adams and then throw around a baseball.
Ellie would shock Bernie's teammates with her ability to catch every one of his throws. He was the pitcher, and he got her a catcher's mitt one Christmas.
"If I was throwing too fast, she caught it with a sponge" in the mitt, Bernie said as an often-silent Ellie looked at her husband smiling and nodding. "And she threw just like a boy."
The couple has taken on the world since its Drury days, with Bernie serving as a naval code-breaker in World War II, going to the University of Notre Dame and opening a dentist practice in Dalton.
All the while, Eleanor has been by his side, a partner in business and in life.
"All of our Valentine's Days have all been exceptionally beautiful. I can't say enough about Ellie," Bernie said. "She's done so much for not only me, but for the family we had. She's an exceptional person."
One afternoon in late December, on Eleanor's 93rd birthday, Bernie sat with his wife in their living room, flipping through a book of memories.
Looking at a recent Berkshire Eagle story about a baseball signed by the Drury team in 1939, he pointed himself out in an accompanying photo.
Bernie doesn't remember when or why he signed the ball more than 75 years ago, but he was able to identify all but two of his teammates by their first and last names and nicknames.
"We won a lot of championships," said Bernie, who was captain of the team his senior year and his class president. Ellie was class secretary.
When Bernie and Ellie met, they were on the commercial, or business, track at Drury High School.
Having grown up in a working-class mill family, Bernie had no expectation of going to college.
It wasn't until one afternoon, while coaching his friends in a "sandlot" football game, when a trenchcoat and fedora-clad state representative walked onto the field.
"We thought he was a cop," Bernie said, adding that he immediately began searching his mind for anything he did that would require police presence.
The politician pulled Bernie aside to say that if he took some college-prep courses, he would be on track for a football scholarship to Williams College.
"That moment changed my whole life," Bernie said.
When Bernie was told he had a shot at Williams, he and Ellie immediately figured that he also had a chance to go to Notre Dame, which had been on a four-year football championship streak.
Ellie made it happen, Bernie said.
"I would have ended up working in a mill if it wasn't for her," he said.
Bernie enrolled in college prep classes and Ellie immediately started typing letters to send to the university, coaches and politicians, he said.
Bernie ended up getting accepted to Notre Dame on a football scholarship, but one Sunday, about four months into his premed major, before he ever played a game, a letter came under the door.
He was ordered to appear before the draft board. World War II was underway.
"We were both nervous," Bernie said. "That's how it happened. I never played football."
In June 1943, one year out of high school, the couple married in Adams while Bernie was on leave from Navy boot camp.
Their only photo from that day hangs proudly beside the their front door.
Bernie ended up in naval intelligence, moving around the country for training in code.
Ellie, at 18 years old, would travel with him, renting a room in whatever city in which he was stationed so they could see each other on weekends, giving up her place at Bay Path University.
"She sacrificed a scholarship," Bernie said. "She sacrificed so much for us."
It wasn't until Bernie was stationed in Chatham, where the Navy had a secret mission intercepting German U-boat code, that the two were able to live together in a cottage on the cape.
During his mission, and for decades after, Bernie was forbidden to tell his wife what he was doing in Chatham. The penalty for doing so was death, he said.
"The town couldn't figure out why 250 sailors were stationed in Chatham and we had no boat," Bernie said, laughing.
When the war ended, Bernie returned to Notre Dame and Eleanor gave birth to their first son.
"It was known as fertile valley," Bernie said about the university's veteran housing. "They had more children out there than they had students."
After completing his undergraduate degree, Bernie went to Tufts University for dentistry, opened his practice in Dalton, and the couple had four more children.
No matter how busy the two were, they "never stopped courting," Bernie said, adding that, every six weeks, they would go away for the weekend, usually camping.
Through the years, Ellie took on a slew of projects for herself, including knitting bandages for leprosy patients and more than 3,500 hats for premature babies at Boston Medical Center.
She also held secretarial jobs, did typing for the family business, and filed their taxes for the first 21 years, Bernie said.
As loved ones started getting older, Eleanor took in and cared for her mother, Bernard's father, an aunt and a man that once rented them a room.
"I married quite a girl. She got me a little smarter than I should have been," Bernie said. "Whatever I tried to do, Eleanor was the main reason I was trying. I wanted to impress her."
Today, the Auges have 12 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren, with one great-great-grandchild on the way.
When Ellie was asked what her secret to a happy marriage is, a puzzled look came across her face.
She said she didn't know.
"You better not say you'd marry someone else," Bernie joked with his wife.
"Oh, never!" she insisted.
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at email@example.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.
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