Fruita couple always together, even in death
Like a romantic movie, Ralph and Kathryn Gierhart’s love story included a war, a reunion and an amazing conclusion.
However, the difference between the Gierharts’ story and love on the silver screen is that the Gierharts’ love was real.
“They were, basically, one person,” said Lily Overholt, 50, the younger of the Gierharts’ two daughters.
Lily remembers her father kissing her mother at every meal and every day before he left for work with the Colorado Department of Transportation for 30 years. Even as they aged, the Gierharts held hands in public.
Lily said the one time she heard her parents raise their voices in disagreement was during a fight over tomato plants. She doesn’t remember what the problem was, only that she cried because she was convinced her parents were going to divorce.
Knowing her father always kissed her mother before he left for work, Lily went into the kitchen the morning after the disagreement and asked, “Did Daddy kiss you goodbye?”
Her mother looked down and said, “Of course.”
And that was that.
Ralph and Kathryn never went by their given names. Ralph was given the moniker “Pat” by his grandmother, and Kathryn used her middle name, Joyce.
Despite living with a rugged cowboy-of-a-father, who prided himself on the craftsmanship of homemade spurs and belt buckles, Lily and her sister, Patricia, spent a lifetime being hugged, kissed and showered with “I love you” from both parents.
“They were affectionate,” Lily said. “Always.”
Pat and Joyce went to senior prom together in 1949 and were classmates at Gunnison High School, but weren’t dating at that time.
Pat was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1950, the year the Korean War began. He never went to Korea but spent three years stationed in Germany. During that time, Joyce attended Western State College and moved to Santa Fe to teach elementary school.
There is no record of love letters between the two, but there is no indication that they forgot about each other, either.
The reunions started when Pat returned to western Colorado after he was discharged from the military and Joyce was back from Santa Fe to visit her family.
Jerry Hogan remembers those reunions through the eyes of an observant little brother. Pat and Joyce would get in a truck and disappear to Dry Gulch west of Gunnison, he said.
“They’d be gone a long time,” said Jerry, who was 11 years younger than Joyce and now lives in Delta. “I’d say to Joyce, ‘Where you guys been?’ She said, ‘Smoochin’.”
That was one of the rare times Pat or Joyce ever kissed and told during their 54 years of marriage and nearly 56 years dating.
They got married on June 18, 1955, in Gunnison.
After living in a couple different places in western Colorado, the Gierharts moved to Mesa County in 1970.
“They were very secretive about everything they did,” Lily said.
As private as her parents were, Lily recalls that her parents never held back when it came to showing love to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Joyce, who the grandchildren called “Mimi,” made sure every grandchild could read before kindergarten. Pat, referred to as “Papa,” taught all but one of his six grandchildren how to drive.
“They spoiled them rotten,” Lily said, choking back tears. “They were great grandparents.”
Although tears weren’t a common part of Lily’s childhood, they became more common in 2001 when Patricia died of cancer.
Watching her parents mourn a child, along with her own grief, ripped Lily’s heart apart.
“They really relied on themselves,” Lily said. “It really was hard for me to watch their sorrow.”
About the time of Patricia’s death, Joyce’s health began to deteriorate “not immediately, but it really took a toll,” Lily said.
In 2009, the final chapter of Pat and Joyce’s love story began.
Pat and Joyce, both in their late 70s, were hospitalized with pneumonia at Community Hospital in late September. They shared a hospital room until Pat went home a few days later.
Nearly a week after being hospitalized, fears that Joyce had developed tuberculosis forced doctors to isolate her. From the start, Joyce began asking to get out of isolation because she wanted to see people, particularly her husband, Lily said.
Within three days, Pat and Joyce got the reunion they wanted. Jerry asked his sister about the reunion.
“We smooched,” Joyce told her brother.
Joyce returned home to Pat in early October. However, she was readmitted 10 days later, again with pneumonia. Pat seemed to be well, Lily said.
On Oct. 19, the hospital called both Pat and Lily to tell them they needed to come because Joyce wasn’t doing well.
Lily, who lives in Fruita, drove to her parents’ rural Fruita home to pick up her father. When she arrived, he could hardly walk or breathe. Instead of going to see his wife, Pat went to the emergency room. He was wheeled into his wife’s room that night.
“I think he knew,” Lily said. “He told one of the nurses in the ICU that ‘she can’t die before me.’ “
At 6:30 a.m. Oct. 20, 2009, Pat died. Joyce died less than eight hours later. They were both 78.
Lily knows her mother died of complications from pneumonia. She thinks her father died of a broken heart.
Their ashes will be buried in the same way Lily remembers them living: as one.