Vi was “the older woman,” born in 1919, 2 years and 3 months before her beloved Herb. She never let him forget it and he’d always remind her. She left her childhood home of Pleasant Dale, Nebraska at the age of 22 for San Diego, California to work at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation. Like thousands of other women during World War Two, Vi served her nation as a “Rosy the Riveter” working in the defense industry building B-24 Liberator bombers and PBY Catalina flying boats.
Like Vi, Herb was a Lutheran. As a matter of fact, the Theiss family were pioneer Lutherans in California, having found their way from the mid-west center of Lutheranism to establish congregations and schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. Herb’s dad, a pastor, spent his life serving churches throughout California, eventually leading the family to San Diego.
Herb was in the Army during World War II, serving in the Pacific Theater, obtaining the rank of Master Sergeant. And, like so many other Lutheran couples after the war, it was at a Walther League young adult event that Herb and Vi met. It was a love story that would last for over 69 years of marriage. Growing up in San Diego, where the weather for sports was always perfect, Herb lived and breathed baseball. One of his proudest accomplishments was as a starter for an American Legion baseball team that played for the national championship in 1938. But Herb’s greatest feat was hitting a homerun when he married Vi. She was a baseball nut!
Vi loved the Dodgers. Herb loved the Angels. Fortunately their National and American League allegiances allowed for a peaceful coexistence until the day the world shifted on its axis and interleague play was introduced. In addition to being a pastor, husband, and father, it is important to confess that my next most important self-identifier is that I am a San Francisco Giants baseball fan, almost from birth – the Giants moving from New York to San Francisco two years after I was born. And so it was perfectly normal for Vi and I to take great joy in picking on each other as participants in the greatest sports rivalry of all time – the Dodgers and Giants. The three of us often talked about how our days, and even life’s rhythm itself, was impacted by the performance of our teams. Each day a new game, a time for a fresh start, a field on which the drama played out, and valleys full of the great joys and deep disappointments.
Herb and Vi were pillars at Christ Lutheran Church and School, Costa Mesa, California, the place where I have served as lead pastor since 2006. For more than 20 years, Herb led a Saturday morning Men’s Bible Study that mentored more men, husbands, and sons in Scripture than most Bible teachers will ever experience. They were examples of faithful living, no matter the challenges of life’s valleys. Unlike many in the church, they didn’t step aside as age crept up and life slowed down. They kept serving the Lord until the time in life when their bodies simply wouldn’t allow them to keep up the pace that had defined them for so long. The day that Herb handed off the leadership of the Saturday Morning Men’s Bible Study was one of the toughest days of his life. He yielded simply because, at 93, he could not maintain the quality of his leadership. While both had various issues of health as they got closer to heaven, it was really old age that led them into life’s final valley.
Everyone thought Vi would go first. It happens that way a lot. Mini strokes, falls, and failing hearing. During her last days she was so deaf that shouting didn’t work. We had to speak to her by writing on a little white board with erasable felt pens. She never lost her edge. Her sense of humor never waned. If there were more days in between my visits than Vi thought appropriate I was usually greeted the next time with a sly smile, a wagging finger, followed by a demand for increased frequency. Herb cared for her as long as he could. But eventually hospice was called for both. The doctor had told Herb that he’d die of old age before the prostate cancer got him, but the doctor obviously didn’t have many patients who lived into their mid-90s! (Watch for Part 2 on Tuesday, March 6th.)