- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

ST. CLOUD, Fla. (AP) - The first time Elmer Bihl saw his future wife across a dance floor, he knew she was the one.

Their love story began seven decades ago and ended when Elmer, 93, died March 1. Ruth, 89, followed the next day.

“To me, it was just a sign that they were soulmates,” said Bob Pate, administrator at Solaris Healthcare in St. Cloud, where the couple lived out their final years. “They just had a godly connection.”

Before Elmer Bihl’s health deteriorated, he paid daily visits to his wife. Last year, suffering from cancer, he, too, was admitted to Solaris Healthcare.

The couple, who moved to Central Florida in 1972, shared a room.

Elmer Bihl always said he wanted to die at the same time as Ruth, who had suffered dementia for nearly two decades. His prediction came uncannily close to reality.

Bihl took his last breath at 6:10 a.m. March 1. His wife followed at 5:10 a.m. March 2.

“As my dad said, he had to go first because he had to hold the door for her,” granddaughter Christine Dudgeon said.

The phenomenon of two people in a deep relationship dying a short time apart even has a name: the widowhood effect, also known as broken-heart syndrome.

It’s not limited to married couples. On Dec. 27, actress and author Carrie Fisher, 60, died of a heart attack. Her mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, 84, died the next day of a stroke after reportedly telling her son, “I want to be with Carrie.”

And in 2003, country singer-songwriter Johnny Cash died just four months after his wife, country star June Carter Cash. Their longtime passion and 35-year marriage were chronicled in the 2005 movie “Walk the Line.”

The Bihls’ life was decidedly less volatile, but no less romantic.

Elmer Bihl started college during World War II but was called away to work on his father’s vegetable farm in Wheelersburg in southern Ohio, said the couple’s daughter Joanne Minor, 66, of Circleville, Ohio.

The Bihls married on Sept. 25, 1948, at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Wheelersburg, and Elmer Bihl became the owner and manager of Andrew Bihl Sons produce farm, which grew sweet corn, tomatoes and other crops. Ruth Bihl raised their children, Donald, Joanne, Dolores, Paul and Roger, cooked, sewed, gardened and kept house.

At the end of the workday, Elmer played badminton, croquet, baseball and pinochle with the children, and the family took occasional trips to Florida, which they loved.

“They were wonderful (parents) - strict but fair, said their son Roger Bihl, 57, of St. Cloud.

Family, church and hard work were at the center of their world, but the base that supported everything was Elmer and Ruth Bihl’s devotion to each another.

When she stood at the stove, sometimes with a smudge of flour on her face, he’d give her a hug and a kiss as he headed back to work on the farm after lunch. Whenever he looked at her, it was obvious that he adored her, their children recalled.

Once they moved to Florida, Elmer Bihl took a job as superintendent at a water and sewer utility in Kissimmee, and they joined St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in St. Cloud, where Ruth was the women’s-group treasurer and baked and crocheted for the holiday bazaar and Elmer was in charge of bingo.

After Elmer Bihl retired, it was rare to see either Bihl without the other, whether they were sitting on their porch admiring the yard where Ruth grew her head-turning poinsettias, shopping at the grocery store or entertaining family and friends.

Then Ruth Bihl began to develop Alzheimer’s disease, and Elmer learned to do the cooking, cleaning, ironing and other household chores she’d never let him touch in their younger days.

When his wife’s dementia reached the point where he could no longer care for her at home, Elmer Bihl arrived at the nursing home every day precisely at noon to sit with her as she ate lunch.

“He wanted to make sure that she was taken care of and safe,” said Dudgeon, 38, also of Circleville. “He doted on her every second of every day until he couldn’t do so anymore.”

The couple’s joint funeral Mass was March 13 at St. Thomas Aquinas. Their remains will be cremated and laid to rest together at Osceola Memory Gardens. Besides their children, they are survived by seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

“It was a true love story,” Minor said.

___

Information from: Orlando Sentinel, https://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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