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Third time's a charm

When Henry Mahlman said, "I do," he meant it with all his heart —all three times.

He can remember the words just fine. After all, there are only two of them. It’s the wedding dates the 89-year-old Little Rock resident struggles to keep straight.

The first time, his bride was an ocean away, hearing the words from another man -- Henry's brother-in-law, Frank Collins.

The second time, nobody in the church understood a word he said.

The third time?

"Well, it's supposed to be a charm, right?" he said.

Amazingly enough, the complicated history revolves around one woman: Lois Thiesse Mahlman.

"The love of my life," Henry said.

The couple renewed their vows on Friday, June 22, in honor of their approaching 61st anniversary. The service – complete with a cake, organist, new dress, pastor and reception – was held at Country View Manor in Sibley, the care facility where Lois, 83, moved after breaking her ankle.

And why not? The other two weddings were far from conventional.

“Oh, I’d say we had storybook weddings,” Lois said.

Still, she admits their story would more likely start with, “Nobody thought it would actually happen…” rather than, “Once upon a time…”

The date: July 21, 1946.

The event: The marriage of Henry Mahlman and Lois Thiesse.

The problem: Henry was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Air Force and could not finagle a leave of absence to wed his fiancée.

The solution: A proxy wedding, where a representative for the groom repeated Henry’s vows, making the couple man and wife, despite the absence of the man from his wife.

“Tricky business, that,” Henry said.

Following World War II, the military and some – but not all states – made a legal exception that that allowed servicemen overseas to marry their sweethearts back home by proxy.
Henry was working as a farmhand on the neighboring acre when he met the beauty in the blue dress.  

“I liked her from the day I saw her,” Henry said.

He proposed in 1945 before he was drafted. After several months in Germany, he begged officers for a proxy wedding. They made arrangements, and a few weeks later, Henry received a letter.

"That's how I knew we were married; the mail clerk told me," he said.

Lois; her sister, Jeanne Van Briesen; and their mother, Hannah Thiesse, traveled to Kansas to meet Henry's brother-in-law for the ceremony, which was performed by the justice of the peace, who Lois remembers as "Judge James."

Afterward, they posed on the courthouse steps for photos, had a picnic lunch, and Lois penned a letter that she signed, "Mrs. Henry Mahlman."

"And that's how I knew, by her signing it that way," he said.

Henry said the vows to himself in Germany, just for good measure.

The second time around proved a tad less confusing — for the couple.

On Dec. 8, 1946, the two stood in front of a German congregation before the Sunday morning service and said their vows in English — not exactly the preferred language in the war-torn country.

"I wore a brown suit with a big, beautiful, brown hat," Lois said. "It was just a beautiful hat. It matched the yellow mums we had so nicely."

There was no family. No close friends. Even the chaplain was a stranger.

This time around — the last time, Henry adds — the couple decided to go the traditional route:

Something borrowed, something blue, something old, something new.

Henry rolled Lois in her borrowed wheelchair to the makeshift altar in the activities room at Country View Manor while the organist played, "Here Comes the Bride."

Elaine Jungers, activities director at the facility, said they had to cancel the bingo session for the ceremony.

"And believe me, that's a big deal here," she said. "During a disaster, blizzard, whatever, they have bingo. But they gave it up for this."

For something blue, Lois sported the new, blue suit Henry chose.

"I've always liked her in blue," he said. "I would've worn my uniform, like I did back then, if it fit. She always liked me in my uniform."

Both wore something old on their left hand. Henry still sports his original ring, while Lois' diamonds were reset in a new band in 1961.

"The first one wore out," she said.

Even the pastor, the Rev. Stephen May of First Baptist Church in rural George, mentioned the rings during the ceremony.

"Realizing your rings have been on your fingers for some 60 years, we'll skip that exchanging part," he said.

 And, finally, Lois had to have a new hat.

"I had that beautiful one the first time, and I had to have one today," she said.

 Yet, the whole event had a familiar feeling to it.

"Where's the time gone?" Henry said. "It just feels like yesterday we fell in love."

And that love — found more than six decades ago — still is as strong as when the couple was first married.

 "If I had to guess, I'd say we're going to last a long time yet," Lois said.