"It was the best choice of our lives to come to this country," Irmgard Klee says.
"You bet," adds her husband, Otmar. But, "It was a struggle."
"Don't ask me how many chicken wings we ate," Irmgard says.
"Before that it was chicken necks," Otmar says. "We walked all over Hartford. We didn't take the bus because we didn't want to spend 25 cents."
Seeking freedom and opportunity, Irmgard, 25, and Otmar, 27, left jobs as translators at Landstuhl Air Base in their native Germany and boarded a ship for the United States on Sept. 22, 1956.
"Our hope was great that we could finish our education while at the same time create a career and family," says Otmar, whose high school education abruptly ended during World War II.
The couple settled in Connecticut and Otmar applied for work with Pratt & Whitney, but despite his secret clearance status, they would not hire him without American citizenship.
When he applied for a typesetting job at The Hartford Courant, his interviewers rejected him, saying he was a good typist but that he should go back to school.
The newcomers were warned that banks and insurance companies don't pay much, but with their $400 savings depleted, Otmar went to work for Aetna sorting punch cards. His salary was $2,600 per year. "That fulfilled one of my expectations," he said. "They gave me a chance."
Those were the chicken neck years. The couple paid $18 a week for a single room with a sink, and Irmgard, who was pregnant, worked as an office temp. When their son was born a year later, Irmgard's mother squeezed in with them, and Irmgard began working at Travelers.
In January 1957, Otmar started taking electrical engineering classes at Hillyer College (now the University of Hartford), paying $5 incrementally for three courses per semester. He earned a reputation in his department as the problem-solver, spotting mistakes that stumped his superiors. His work, a precursor to computerized data processing, "gave me access to the newest equipment," he says.
Otmar invested 91/2 years to earn his college degree, and 25 years after arriving in the United States, he had worked his way up to the vice presidential ranks at Aetna. In the early 1970s, he served as a keynote speaker overseas for IBM, whose computers he used at Aetna.
Irmgard, whose maiden name is Döring, saved her money as a translator to begin college studies in Germany, and met Otmar in 1954 while training him to fill her position. When he saw her reviewing her math to go back to school, he asked her to teach him.
"We would sit in my tiny, little rented room and do math. … He was really eager. He was a sponge. You had to say something once and he'd pick it up," Irmgard says. "We didn't do too much else but math" on dates.
"We both experienced the war years and the struggles after. We were trying to figure out what to do with our lives," Irmgard said, adding that she told Otmar, "If you're interested in me you better put in your visa application because I'm going to the United States."
Waiting for their visas they were married on Feb. 22, 1956, to have Washington's birthday holiday as their anniversary in their new country.
When Otmar completed his engineering degree, they moved with their son and daughter to Simsbury and faced their "hardest time." Their son had a brain hemorrhage. "He almost didn't make it," Irmgard says. "That took a lot out of us. It was a long time before we came to grips with it."
"Once the kids were done with college, I went to evening college," a dream postponed 25 years, Irmgard says. She earned her degree in data processing management and brought her skills to Travelers.
"The high point of every year" was their vacation on Cape Cod with their children, Irmgard says. They returned to Germany a few times, but never doubted their decision to emigrate.
"No question about it … not for a second," says Otmar, whose "favorite aspect of coming here is the freedom to associate the way I want."
"You can follow your thoughts. If you want to try something, you can try it," says Irmgard. "I was very impressed with Americans' can-do attitude. … It's very freeing here."
They've traveled with the Smithsonian Institution to China and South America, and to see Otmar's high school friend in Australia. Moving to Duncaster, a retirement community in Bloomfield, two years ago has opened up new opportunities educationally, culturally and socially, they say.
"She is perfection squared," Otmar says, turning a shy, boyish glance at Irmgard. "She has incredible intelligence … and good spirit."
He worries that his recent health issues are restricting Irmgard, but she says, "When I first met him, I felt he was such an intelligent person who has such a positive life force, and that has never ended." Nor has their romance.
"We're a team, we're a team," Irmgard says, leaning forward to the edge of her seat and raising her voice enthusiastically. "Little things that might interfere, they're just things you overcome. You don't throw the towel in for the long run over little things that are unimportant."
Not this team celebrating their 50th year as U.S. citizens and their 57th Independence Day together in the "land of the free and the home of the brave."