Love Notes: One for the history books

"It was preordained," says Ruth Chudoba, 88, of her marriage to Frank. The two sit in their Westmont town house, near photos of their four children, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Meant to be, perhaps, but not in a straight line.

"During the Depression both our fathers had lost their jobs," Ruth says. "Our fathers went to work for the (Works Progress Administration), and they got to know one another. Then our families (both living in Berwyn) started to get together."

Frank, 86, jumps in. "I made lead soldiers. I had my own mold and I used to melt lead in the kitchen; my mother was always saying I was going to burn the house down. I would make these little soldiers and break the mold open and carve them. I built my little army, and we started playing with the soldiers every time we met. We were probably 8, 9 at the time."

If Frank came to Ruth's house, he always had a bag full of his homemade army in hand, and he, Ruth and her kid brother would sit and play. "I admired that he would make these soldiers, and he was very much military-minded," Ruth says. "He knew so much about how to line them up and it amazed me."

Frank, conversely, says he liked the fact that a girl was interested in his hobby enough to play with him.

The times, as is universally known, were hard. "We were poor. I got my clothes from charity, from donations," Frank says.

Ruth's parents had a bakery in Berwyn, but hard times compelled them to close it.

Ruth and Frank stayed in touch for a while, but went separate ways when Ruth's family moved. Although they both wound up at Morton High School in Cicero at the same time, "we never crossed paths," Frank says. Adds Ruth, "It was such a huge school we never had occasion to meet."

That could have been the end of it, two proverbial ships passing in the night.

But the shortage of workers during World War II drew Ruth to Hurley Machine Co., which was desperate for someone to run its blueprint machine.

"I was in the same department as tool-design drafting and I would sit there and watch these guys and think, 'That looks so good; I wish I could do that.' I decided I wanted to learn the trade, so I went to night school to study drawing and math," she says.

Eventually, Ruth got a tool-design job at General Motors' Electro-Motive Division, which made locomotives. She was the only woman, a pioneer without knowing it.

"They would never have hired women at that time, but the men were all in the service," she says.

Meanwhile, Frank enlisted in the Marine Corps and ended up in field artillery because of his math skills, which helped him home in on targets.

"I went to Saipan (and) the invasion of Okinawa. In Okinawa, we were in a convoy and we changed positions with another ship, which was hit by a kamikaze and sank. I don't know why we changed positions." He did know it had probably saved his life. The road to Ruth remained intact.

After the war, Frank wound up back home and with a job at Electro-Motive. With the GI Bill, he applied for a tool and die apprenticeship, but the company recognized his skills and urged him to attend college and become a mechanical engineer. For two years, he worked in the shop while in school; then, as a college junior, he moved to tool engineering.

Ruth worked in the same department.

Frank saw her and said, "I think I should know you." When he got home, he told his mother he met a Ruth Horak, and she told him the families used to get together. Ruth and Frank realized they not only shared childhood memories but also the same culture and the Czech language.

Eventually, Frank asked Ruth to a Bohemian movie at the Villas Theater in Cicero.

"That was the beginning," Ruth says.

The courtship was short and sweet.

"I found her and said, 'This is it,' " says Frank. "I thought she was beautiful, she spoke the language, was a good cook, and I thought, 'How much better could it get?' "

They were married June 28, 1952, at Wood Dale Community Church. They settled in Darien, which was unincorporated at the time. For the last 21 years, they've lived in Westmont. They have traveled the world, with stops in Australia, China, Morocco, Russia, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, among others.

To this day Frank is known as the fix-it man around their town home association and serves on the board. Both volunteer for the Darien Seniors Club: Frank as auditor and photographer, Ruth as the record keeper.

When journalist Tom Brokaw coined the term "greatest generation" to describe those who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, the Chudobas could have been his archetype. Although pundits have debated the term and its veracity, it's hard to argue that members of their generation were dealt a horrible hand and did what they had to do to get through it with steadfast resolve and a certain stoicism. They learned to suffer life's vagaries quietly; were proud, yet humble; and went very light on saccharine emotion. As the Chudobas close in on 90, that appears to be how they have lived.

In the early '90s, Frank had two angioplasties and then a heart bypass. He promptly changed his lifestyle, lost weight and goes to the health club almost daily. Ruth has Parkinson's disease and the onset of dementia, which she describes calmly, even with laughter.

"I know he gets discouraged sometimes because my memory is failing," she says.

"I feel sorry for her, but there's nothing we can do. She has a good neurologist and is on medication that puts a damper on it, but there's no cure. So I bite my tongue and retract," Frank says, adding with a wide grin, "She still always wants to have the last word anyway."

Adds Ruth, "I wouldn't trade (Frank) for anybody. I don't know what I'd do without him."

"Likewise," he answers, Marine-style.



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