by Amie Rodgers
Meet Joe and Lee Pretsch. These good people believe in appreciating what you have and doing the best you can with it. These words of wisdom have been born from good times and challenges and the solidarity to stick by each other as they traveled the world as a military family.
Lee was born in Mainland, Pennsylvania (population 49) on July 27th, 1928. She grew up with two sisters and a brother in a rural Mennonite community. “You’ve heard of the Amish, I’m sure. Well, my parents were Mennonites and we lived a very conservative life, but it was a good healthy life. We were more modern than the Amish. We were allowed to have a car, but it had to be black and the chrome had to be painted black. Nothing shiny or ‘worldly’ was allowed,” says Lee.
At the age of two, Lee was diagnosed with polio. “I have been handicapped all my life. Daddy had to work two jobs to pay for my shoes and braces. It was very challenging for him. He ran a creamery where the farmers would bring the milk to be run over the coolers and the truck would take it 25 miles to Philadelphia where they would process it from there. My grandfather also had a pork packing plant. So in the morning, Daddy would work at the creamery and all afternoon and evening, he would work at the plant. Unfortunately, he passed away at the age of 39 from cancer. So, we struggled, but we made it through.”
Although she spent her childhood on crutches, Lee went to school when she could and did her studies at home when she was healing from surgery. “Every summer they would do surgeries on my leg. In my senior year, I had enough credits to graduate, but in order to graduate, students had to be physically present for one semester so I got held back because I was taking longer than expected to heal. After my father passed away (seven years later), my mother remarried a wonderful person and we moved to Blooming Glen, Pennsylvania (population 500). I remember my stepfather telling me that there were two things that I was going to need: a car and an education. So, he sent me to a business college from which I graduated and when I got a job, he got me a car. I worked for United States Gauge and had a defense job. Being handicapped, it wasn’t like it is today where everything is so much more accessible. We had to make some adjustments, but I was able to work a 40 hour week like the rest of them and I was very fortunate in that. My right side is paralyzed, but with an automatic transmission, I was able to drive. When my future husband saw a girl with a car, well, that was it,” laughs Lee.
Lee’s future husband Joe was born on November 14th, 1920 in East Prussia, Germany. He grew up with two sisters and in 1925 his family immigrated to the United States. “After coming through Ellis Island, we settled with relatives in Long Island, New York. This was during the Depression and I remember three times a week we would stand in the bread line. My dad decided he wanted a little farm where we could grow our own food so we moved to Pennsylvania,” says Joe.
When war broke out in 1943, Joe was drafted in January and interestingly enough, he was in the service for six months before he received his official citizenship papers. “His parents had gotten the first papers, but hadn’t gotten the second papers so he was officially an enemy alien,” laughs Lee, “Since he spoke German fluently, he was in the intelligence section as a translator and interpreter. He was in the Normandy Invasion of Omaha Beach in WWII.” To which Joe adds, “We were the second wave. Nearly the entire first wave was killed. From there, we were sent to Paris as an occupation force. I was in charge of a POW camp because I was bilingual. It was a good job and the government was, how should I say, generous in supplying amenities to entertain the Germans.”
Lee was twenty when she met Joe who had just come home from the war. “I went to the post office one day for the mail. Joe came driving up in his jeep with his collie dog. He was so good looking and friendly. Since I was on crutches, he asked me if I had broken my leg and I explained that I had surgery. We had a nice conversation. I went home to my stepfather and asked who this guy was,” she giggles, “He said, ‘Oh, that’s Gunther Pretsch. He just came back from the war.’ Of course, the Mennonites don’t serve in the military and Joe’s family was the one Lutheran family in town. I decided to go back to the post office the next day to see if I could see him again and I did. He took me for a ride in his jeep. We started our relationship there and it has been wonderful. Some time later, I remember him asking me ‘If you think you can be an army wife, let’s get married.’ We had a big wedding (well, at least for us). We got married in a Baptist church. Joe had a thirty day leave for the wedding. We took a short honeymoon. We were going to go to Niagara Falls, but it was April 14th and it was so bitter cold. I was in my spring clothes so we turned around and went to Florida where my grandparents lived.”
After their honeymoon, Joe was stationed at Fort Eustis Virginia. “We started married life in a 28 foot travel trailer. The rent there was $3 a month and that included utilities. About a year and a half after we were married, our first child Kathy came. Our military life took us many, many places. When Joe was called back up for the Korean War, he was offered six months stateside duty training dogs at Fort Carson Colorado. Then in 1953, we were sent to Germany for three and a half years. Joe’s job at the time was liaison with the German officials. So, we had to speak the German language. The hostess must be able to converse with her guests, you know. We lived a total German lifestyle and Joe never wore his uniform. Our oldest son Rick was born during our time in Germany and our daughter Kathy was bilingual at the age of two. All of the furnishings, crystal and china were German made and we had a maid 24/7 who would help entertain. It was a challenge, but very exciting in a way because we had to be prepared to deport at any moment. Joe would not necessarily be able to come home and get us so we had to be ready with suitcases packed and ready to go in the closet. We were told we would have to make our way back home by way of Africa. Fortunately, that never happened. While we were there, we visited Switzerland and all the outlying countries. It was wonderful and we enjoyed it,” remembers Lee, “We came back and were stationed at Fort Lewis Washington. We were then sent to the Presidio in San Franciso. We were there a year. One day, Joe called me and said, ‘Mom, I got orders to Hawaii. Wanna go?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ Three weeks later, we were in Hawaii and we were there for five wonderful years during which time our son Roger was born.”
After their time in Hawaii, Joe was transferred back to Fort Lewis before retiring in 1966. “The weather in Washington was rough on me physically so we needed a warm, dry climate. We looked at southern California, but the houses were so expensive. We visited some friends in Mesa and fell in love with Arizona. Joe worked at Williams Air Force Base and I got a job at J.C. Penneys. I worked there for fifteen years until 1981 when I had to go on disability. It was a great company to work for. I met Mr. Penney three times and he was a wonderful person. Can you believe I still have my 15% employee discount to this day?” laughs Lee.
Always staying busy, the couple also got into real estate by refurbishing run down houses to rent and sell. They moved to Payson in 1981 where they lived for more twenty years. In addition to her husband’s military career, Lee’s two sons also pursued military careers. “Both boys wanted to be pilots. So we gave them each $500 and told them that if they wanted it, they would have to work for it. They both got jobs, went to school and went into ROTC. Rick went into the Air Force with a scholarship. He became a F16 fighter pilot. Roger went into the Army and was an Apache Helicopter Commander. Having a father and two sons in the military, our heart was in supporting our troops. When we moved to Payson, Desert Storm was going on and Roger was called to go over. It was in July and I wanted to do something to show support for our troops,” says Lee, “For Labor Day, we decided to put yellow ribbons around the trees in town. I asked the local florists for donations of ribbon and on Labor Day, Highway 87 was covered with flags and yellow ribbons. Joe asked me for an old white sheet and he tore it into three banners and sewed them together. On it, he painted ‘Payson A Town That Cares’ and Bashas allowed us to put it up. People signed it, quoted scriptures, and made notes on it. We mailed it to our son in Desert Storm. They hung it in their tent and it was so gratifying for us. When Christmas came, I wanted to send a Christmas card to everyone in my son’s division. It turns out that there were 14,000 in the division. Payson at the time had a population of 7,500. I went to the newspaper publisher and she put an article in the paper. We got over 8,000 Christmas cards. Joe had the job of packing them all up into big boxes and we were able to send them postage free. We got letters back from some of the soldiers and they were so happy to be remembered. Three years after that, the local newspaper got a letter to the editor from a retired soldier who was flying into Phoenix when he saw a small village below with an airstrip that said Payson. He instantly remembered ‘Payson A Town That Cares’ and we were so touched that he took the time to write and thank the town.”
Later, the couple decided to move back to Hawaii where they continued to honor our veterans. “In Hawaii, Joe was in the American Legion. We decided to have a big dinner for Veteran’s Day. We were living in Kona and there were 42 restaurants at the time. Joe and I went to each one and asked if they would be willing to donate one dish of food to the dinner and in the end, we had enough to feed 500 people. We had everything from fish to pizzas and it was just wonderful. The Hawaiians came and gave beautiful performances to entertain everyone. Everything was decorated in red, white and blue. We had the largest flag of all the eight islands and needed a crane to put it up. We didn’t have a dime to spend and it took three days to set up, but it all came together. At the end of the dinner, we asked if a few people would stay to help us clean up and in fifteen minutes, the place was all cleaned up. When I thanked one of the gentlemen, he said, ‘When you give to the Hawaiians, they give back double.’ That was life there. We spent a total of 11 years there and loved it,” smiles Lee, “After some time, the kids became concerned that we were 2,800 miles from the main land and asked us to come back. So we did and bought a home in Mesa. My daughter Kathy lives in Linden and we decided to come up for a month last July. We haven’t left yet. We love it here.”
Joe and Lee are the proud grandparents of six grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
After so many years of marriage, I asked Lee and Joe if they had advice for younger couples. “Stay committed and try to help each other through life. If you know it is going to make the other person happy, do it. You have to go out of your way, but they will love and remember you for it. That is why we are still together. Some of the challenges we have had were pretty significant, but Joe was always there ready to hang in there with me. I’ve had eighteen corrective surgeries and I still feel that I am very blessed. Other than dancing, there wasn’t much I’ve missed out on,” laughs Lee.
To which Joe adds with a loving look towards his wife, “We have been blessed. We thank the Lord for everything he has given us. If there is any advice we can give is to appreciate what you have and do the best you can with it.”