By Frances Stebbins
In the five years following the close of World War II, I grew up fast.
It’s July 8 as I write this, a significant day of both fear and joy, but first I must recall my first serious romance with a veteran of the D-Day Invasion of Normandy which 14 months later brought about the end of World War II.
A young man named Tom was there in the United States Signal Corps. He was from Richmond. When I met him early in 1947 in my freshman year at the Richmond Professional Institute (RPI), he was attending the school under the GI Bill looking to a business degree. He was an active church member of my denomination. We met at a social the school sponsored for students so affiliated.
It was Lent; Tom, nine years older than I, invited me to go to church with him the next week, Easter Sunday. That afternoon we went to a park and got better acquainted. From then on, his old car took us sightseeing each Sunday, and dreams of his obvious affection filled my days.
The shy girl, who had felt herself a social misfit in high school, was transformed and felt accepted. He was my date for the formal spring dance.
Like most of the young men, and a few women veterans, Tom lived at home as an only child with his employed parents and drove to RPI. He was free from the dormitory restraints we women were subject to—strictly.
Our romance developed fast that spring as I thrived on my classes that prepared me to be a professional news writer. By the end of May I hated to leave Richmond and my friend to return to the dull life of my small town of Orange 60 miles north. We would write to each other, and perhaps he could visit and meet my mother.
In my blindness of first love, I detected nothing unusual about my friend’s behavior. Later, however, others told me he seemed “tuned out” at times. When he drove up to see me over July 4 and we went for a picnic, he confessed that he “could not get over the war” and seemed irrational. We got home safely, and he left for Richmond.
The next afternoon, Tom called me, not from his home, but from a mental hospital for veterans. That was the end of our romance, for many painful months later, he was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia, then an incurable condition. He underwent experimental surgery, and spent the rest of his long life in the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Salem.
In an incident I regard as a “divine coincidence,” in 2000 a small account of his death appeared in this newspaper. I have seen his grave in a Roanoke cemetery.
That year that I was 19, I survived another blow, for my mother, who had raised me, died of a heart ailment resulting, I think now, from childhood rheumatic fever. I was able to complete my college degree with money from the sale of an old house we were planning to rehabilitate in suburban Richmond.
That’s the sad tale of one veteran. The rest of the story is happier.
My junior year at RPI was dominated, not only by Tom’s illness and my mother’s death, but by my meeting in our Journalism Department a tall, fair-complexioned Navy veteran of the recent war. As the unhappy year ended—Harry Truman was unexpectedly elected President—I got acquainted with Charlie Stebbins at a Christmas social.
By spring, 1949, my life had gone from darkness to dawn. With no car and sharing rent of an apartment with his widowed mother, Charlie walked and rode buses. As two years earlier with the other vet, romance brightened my spring even as my studies were fulfilling and enhanced by love of an experienced newsman six years my senior.
That led to our engagement on July 8, the same day of the year that I had been plunged into fear and ultimately loss two years earlier. Our marriage lasted nearly 57 years until his death from pulmonary fibrosis in 2008. He wrote news stories until six weeks before his death.
My life has been saddened by the death of a fellow local writer, Gail Tansill Lambert on July 2 . Though I scarcely knew her in person, the pandemic brought us together through e-mails and our mutual interest in our Confederate heritage.
Her obituary revealed her many interests and talents used during her 83 years as she and her husband reared their family in Roanoke after a move from Atlanta. We both were columnists for the free monthly publication, “Senior News,” where I read her travel accounts. Lambert self-published two books, the second, “The Life and Times of Virginian Robert Tansill,” finished weeks before her death. She had suffered from a blood disorder.