By Brooke Sherrard, Daily Iowegian
After finding the woman he had never forgotten on Classmates.com, Larry Bradley agonized for days over what message to send her. He wrote paragraphs and rewrote them before settling on a more casual opening line:
“What have you been doing for the last 40 years?”
Five years later, sitting next to him on a couch in their living room, Charlotte Bradley remembered the first response that went through her mind.
“‘Waiting to hear from you,’” she said. “I really wanted to say that … but I didn’t.”
Charlotte, who had recently divorced, was living in Centerville and taking care of her father, Leon Vandike. Larry, who had also recently divorced, was working at a juvenile home in Toledo, Iowa, after having retired from a career as a special education teacher in Tama. They emailed back and forth for a while and then, on Jan. 1, 2007, they decided to meet up in Oskaloosa. This time, they didn’t let each other go.
“We haven’t even had our first argument,” Larry said. “In high school we’d probably have already broken up 10 times by now.”
Larry and Charlotte dated for four years back in the 1960s — though, as Larry noted, they had a habit of breaking up every so often. For Charlotte, who graduated from Centerville High School in 1967, it was nearly her entire high school experience starting in the spring of her freshman year. For Larry, who graduated in 1965, it was his last two years of high school and his two years of junior college in Centerville.
When she graduated from high school, Charlotte was ready to get out and see the world. One of her classmates had a cousin who worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Charlotte and two of her classmates moved to Washington, D.C., to room together and work for the FBI.
“I don’t know what [the FBI does] now, but back then they recruited small-town people because the background checks were easier to do,” Charlotte said with a laugh. “I was indecisive about college. This opportunity came up and my other two girlfriends were going to go, so I applied too. It was a chance to leave Centerville.”
“She left the day after she graduated from high school,” Larry said. She was ready to get out of town, he recalled, “and I knew I had to go to school.”
About a year after the three young women moved to Washington, D.C., one started college in Maryland and one moved to Georgia. So Charlotte moved back to Centerville for a time, and then to Chicago to work in an office. There she met her first husband, who was in the U.S. Navy.
For the 12 years they were married they moved every four years, including a stint in Greece. They had two sons, Justin Huish, 35, and Jared Huish, 39. When they were stationed in Hawaii, they decided to divorce.
Charlotte’s brother, who was living in Oklahoma City, said she should join him there because there were a lot of jobs available in her field of restaurant management. While there, she met her second husband. In 1996, they moved to Centerville together and owned the Green Circle for seven years. They moved to Missouri but then divorced. Charlotte moved back to Centerville to take care of her father.
For his part, Larry, who said he knew he wanted to be a teacher since fourth grade, went from junior college to the University of Iowa. He had trouble deciding what to study and discovered at Iowa that he really didn’t want to be a biology teacher. So, he transferred to Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University).
“That’s about the time we broke up for good,” Larry said.
“So we thought,” Charlotte added.
Larry married, taught in Eldora for two years and then got drafted.
“I spent most of my time in Korea — 440 days and 16 and a half hours, but who counts?” he said wryly.
When he came back, he started teaching at Tama. He and his wife adopted two children from Korea, Janellen Bradley, 35, and Michael Bradley, 33.
But any time either Charlotte or Larry was in Centerville, they remembered each other. They had grown up in the same neighborhood, only three blocks apart, and being at home brought up those old memories.
Larry said sometimes he would drive by the old house where Charlotte grew up to see if she was there. But she never was.
“I would do the same thing too sometimes,” Charlotte said. “I would go down State Street on purpose,” just to drive by the house where Larry grew up.
They saw each other three times. The first was on a Pancake Day in the early 1980s. Charlotte was holding her nephew and watching the parade when she looked to the side and saw Larry standing there. They ended up talking through the whole parade.
“You asked me, ‘Did you ever think of me?’” Larry said to Charlotte, reminiscing about that meeting. “And I said, ‘It took me 10 years not to think of you every day.’”
They ran into each other again at another Pancake Day seven or eight years later. And then, in 2000, they saw each other when the Bradley family went out to eat at the Green Circle.
Charlotte said she was nervous when she saw the name on the reservation and realized who it was.
“We both were still married then at the time, so we didn’t even really talk that much,” Larry said.
But when Larry found Charlotte on Classmates.com, neither was still married. They started dating that first day of 2007, and when Larry retired from the juvenile home in June 2008, he moved to Centerville. He proposed July 31, 2008.
The proposal did not quite go as planned. Charlotte had taken her father out farming. Usually, she said, he tired easily, but that day he was trying to fix a piece of machinery and kept at it for hours.
Meanwhile, Larry was sitting at home waiting to propose. He got angry. He got sleepy and took a nap. Finally, he went outside and gardened to calm himself down.
When Charlotte came home, she found a teddy bear holding a card that said, “Will you marry me?”
She ran outside and said yes.
The Bradleys were married Nov. 28, 2009, at the Beck Mansion. Charlotte had one word to sum up life since the wedding: “Wonderful.”
Today, the Bradleys live in a basement apartment beneath Leon, who is 97. It’s the very spot where Charlotte grew up, though not the same house, which burned in 1993.
About a month before the wedding, Larry was diagnosed with prostate cancer. But in March 2011, he had a surgery and has been declared cancer-free.
Larry said the biggest change in their relationship is the way they communicate.
“If I would get mad at her or something she had done, I wouldn’t communicate it. … I would get mad and walk away,” Larry said. “And now if something goes wrong I’ll definitely say something. We haven’t had that many things to really disagree about. It’s just learning to communicate how you feel and what’s important and what’s not important.”
They stay active, walking four miles a day and lifting weights. Larry has done RAGBRAI 15 times since he turned 50, and this past summer Charlotte went along for the first time.
“We’ve been very happy together,” Larry said. “We do everything we can together. … We talk all the time; we enjoy each other’s company.”
But they don’t quite do everything together. When they go to the junior high track to walk, they walk at their own paces.
“I can’t go slow,” Larry said.
“I walk as fast as I can — I don’t just mosey around,” Charlotte replied to her much taller husband.
Larry and Charlotte don’t have a single picture of their time together in high school.
“We’ve looked and looked and looked,” Larry said.
But Charlotte does have the cameo ring he gave her. She wears it on her right hand and wears a wedding set with three diamonds from her late mother’s ring on her left.
Larry said he was really surprised to find out Charlotte kept the cameo ring all those years. But by now it should be obvious why:
“We never forgot each other,” Charlotte said. “I always thought about him.”