Each year, Leonard Phillips would give Merle Phillips a Valentine’s card, most of which he illustrated himself. The one above is the last one he gave her before he died in 1968 of complications from leukemia. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Each year, Leonard Phillips would give Merle Phillips a Valentine’s card, most of which he illustrated himself. The one above is the last one he gave her before he died in 1968 of complications from leukemia. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

At the heart of it all | On Faith

A love story: how 110-year-old Merle met her valentine.

  • Tuesday, February 20, 2018 11:20am
  • Opinion

At the heart of February is Valentine’s Day. It’s a day for expressing love to that special someone in our lives. Often we do that with cards, candy or flowers. But for those whose valentine is no longer living, Feb. 14 can be a melancholy day. That’s especially true for someone I met a few months ago.

Merle Phillips is the oldest person I’ve ever known. She will celebrate her 111th birthday in April. I made her acquaintance while attending church with my oldest daughter in Chicago. As we turned to pass the peace, this little lady who loves her Lord stole my heart with her signature smile. I sought her out when the worship service was over to find out more about her.

Here was a 4-foot, 10-inch giant whose life perspective towers over most everyone living. She was born six months before the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 1907 and 18 months before Henry Ford rolled out his first Model T. She was 5 years old when the Titanic sank. Her first President was Teddy Roosevelt.

With a winsome glance she told me about the only love of her life, someone who left her through death too soon. Merle met Leonard in graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1937. Within a month of meeting at a party, Leonard proposed to her on Valentine’s Day, presenting her with an original poem.

But then I discovered how Feb. 14 became a tangible means of celebrating the heart of their romance. Every Valentine’s Day throughout their marriage Leonard created a homemade card. It was something Merle looked forward to every Valentine’s.

Tragically, after only 30 years of marriage, Leonard was diagnosed with leukemia. Dreams of spending their retirement years together were dashed. After months of being cared for by his adoring wife, Leonard died on Feb. 13, 1968.

Losing her sweetheart the day before their special day was heartbreaking enough. Then came the realization she would not be getting his personalized expression of his love. It was almost more than Merle could take.

But the next day as she shuffled through papers at home, she discovered the unexpected. Leonard had anticipated he might not be around on Valentine’s Day and had created a card in advance of the actual day. It was in an envelope with her name on it.

Half a century after Leonard’s death, Merle’s eyes well up with tears recalling that final valentine. To hear her tell it, her heart was so full of one man’s love she didn’t see a need for getting married again. Rather, she gave herself to her work as a chemistry lab worker and later as a child care professional.

When I asked if I could have my picture taken with her, she agreed but promptly tossed her walker aside and stood as tall as her 4-foot, 10-inch frame would allow. My smile grew even wider.

Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos is the full-time chaplain at Covenant Shores Retirement Community on Mercer Island. He is the faith and values columnist for the Mercer Island Reporter and contributes original poetry each Blue Friday to KOMO news radio.

Merle Phillips with Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos. Photo courtesy of Greg Asimakoupoulos

Merle Phillips with Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos. Photo courtesy of Greg Asimakoupoulos

More in Opinion

Tips for preserving our family history for posterity

Write memories down before they’re lost.

Dear YFS: What is alcohol-induced amnesia?

Many dangers from blacking out or passing out from too much alcohol.

KCLS supports citizen engagement year-round

Voter resources available at area libraries.

What happens when we believe | Windows and Mirrors

How an unlikely group of teenagers achieved success through the support of their community.

OPINION: The colors of grief

Columnist reminisces on the loss of his father.

Washington National Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith and the Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos, full-time chaplain at Covenant Shores Retirement Community on Mercer Island.
What I learned from our nation’s pastor

Communities are already working together, we need to focus on the positive.

Mercer Island Phone-A-Thon is calling on your support

Make a gift today online at mercerislandschoolsfoundation.com/donate

Curtain call for departing Youth Theatre Northwest director

Manny Cawaling was the executive director at YTN for 10 years, in a time of growth and change.

Stewards of the environment

“We must act locally… Fortunately, we have a number of opportunities at hand.”

Who to vote for?

“[Adam] Smith or [Sarah] Smith?”

Sign of the times

Deputy Mayor “very troubled by signs that went up over the Island this weekend” regarding levy.