Couple's love story honored on Valentine's Day

February 13, 2014 

Franz and Neddie Eitel

COCHRAN -- This is not your ordinary valentine.

It has roots in Berlin and in Soperton.

Tragedy brought a couple together. Love has kept them together.

It is a story with flowers. Lots of them. There was a time when everything that bloomed on the campus of Middle Georgia College had a supporting role in the courtship of Franz and Neddie Eitel.

The sweethearts will celebrate their silver 25th wedding anniversary in July.

Today is Valentine’s Day. Neddie and Franz usually don’t swap cards. They simply spread their love around. They give to charities. They help folks with medical expenses. They recently paid a local family’s utility bill.

Neddie grew up the oldest of nine children on a farm in Treutlen County. She taught school before taking a civil service job at Robins Air Force Base in 1959. She met and married Luther Howell in 1966 and moved to a farm in Bleckley County.

In July 1979, they were traveling to visit her sister in Augusta. A stop sign had been knocked down on a back road near Sandersville. They were hit by a logging truck.

Luther died at the scene. He was 45 years old. Neddie suffered internal bleeding and a ruptured spleen. She was paralyzed in her right arm and leg and went to Warm Springs for two months of rehabilitation.

Neddie eventually returned home and spent the next seven years putting her life back together. She and Luther did not have children, so she was alone. She tried to go back to her job as a computer programmer at Robins but was physically unable.

“There were times when I asked God: ‘Why?’” she said. “I thought there must be some kind of work I could do at the college. I wondered if I could be one of those old-fashioned house mothers.”

After she was hired as house director for Harris Hall, a men’s dormitory, she began noticing a small man clipping shrubbery and tending to flower beds around campus. He rode a bicycle.

“He looked like a hired hand,” she said, laughing.

She had no idea he was a biology professor and the college’s horticulturist.

Franz Eitel was born in Berlin in 1926, the son of well-known scientist Wilhelm Eitel. Franz was only 17 when he was drafted into an anti-aircraft unit of the German army at the height of World War II in 1943.

After the war, his family moved to the U.S. His father was hired as a mineralogist with the Bureau of Mines in Norris, Tenn., 20 miles north of Knoxville. Wilhelm Eitel was one of the leading scientific consultants brought to the U.S. after the war as part Operation Paperclip. He was an international authority on silicate science. He had lost much of his wealth during the war.

Franz learned to speak English and finished high school in Norris. He worked his way through college washing dishes, sweeping floors and as a lab assistant at the University of Tennessee, where he received his degree in botany. He earned his master’s in horticulture at Ohio State.

He was drafted in the U.S. Army as a public information officer in 1955. The irony is that he was sent to his native Germany, where he had fought for the enemy a decade earlier.

After his two-year stint in the military, he worked at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York. He earned his doctorate in science education at the University of Georgia, where a professor helped him land a job at Callaway Gardens. He spent the next five years propagating azaleas.

He entered the world of academia when he was hired for teaching positions at nearby Columbus College and Truett-McConnell in Cleveland, Ga.

In 1966, he was brought to Middle Georgia College (now Middle Georgia State College) to teach biology and serve as campus horticulturist. He rolled into town in his red 1959 Nash Rambler, which he still drives and has become an icon in the community.

He met his wife, Julia, and married in 1968. She taught drama and speech at the college. The week before Christmas in 1986, he was riding with her to Macon to attend a service at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. They were involved in a two-car accident on U.S. 129. Julia was killed, and Franz suffered a punctured lung.

By then, Neddie knew Franz well enough to send him a sympathy card.

“People will tell you they know what you’re going through,’’ she wrote. “But they only think they know the depth of what you’re feeling.”

Like Neddie, Franz had no children. He was lonely. He began attending a grief support group in Macon. He invited her several times. She always declined.

“I told him I didn’t need it, but he was so insistent,” she said. “He came by one day. I thought he needed someone to talk to, so I started going with him.’’

She later would help start a grief support group in Cochran. They began to see each other socially.

“I never saw myself remarrying,’’ Neddie said. “God had given me a reason to live again. I loved my job, and I thought I might have to give it up if I got married. My family loved Franz. They told me I would be crazy not to marry him. He was a good man, a fine man.”

She began assessing her physical limitations as she got older.

Soon, it wasn’t just about him needing her.

“We needed each other,” she said.

They were married in her living room on July 22, 1989. They went to Hawaii on their honeymoon.

She once asked Franz what he considered the best time of his life.

“Right now,” he said.

Not long ago, they were leaving the parking lot at the First Baptist Church. A woman walked over and tapped on the window. Neddie rolled it down.

“Y’all,” said the lady, “are the cutest couple I’ve ever seen.”

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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