Jeri and Fred Harte are seen above before their wedding in 1979, and at their daughter's wedding in 2016.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, it’s befitting that I share a romantic but tragic love story. I want you to know how a big “Harte” was spread across the seas!
“Every love story is beautiful, but ours is my favorite,” said Jeri Harte, of Evergreen Park. She adopted the saying written on a frame that houses a picture of her and Alfred John Harte, her husband of 37 years, affectionately known as Fred.
“Everyone calls him their ‘best Fred’”, said Jeri. “He was like everyone’s best friend, including mine.”
Their romance began nearly four decades ago in the now demolished Evergreen Park Plaza. “I was working in a record store and Fred did maintenance for the Plaza. I guess you could say I chased him until he caught me,” blushed Jeri.
Jeri said she was drawn to Fred.
“I’d see him working every day. I used to flirt with him by giving him discounts on records when he came into the store.”
Fred eventually caught on and asked her to be his date to a friend’s wedding. The spark between them flickered from May through the 4th of July.
“There weren’t fireworks that night, only waterworks coming out of my eyes - he broke up with me,” recalled Jeri.
She said she later learned that Fred fled because he was falling for her and wanted to spare himself the pain he’d experienced in a previous heartbreak.
“His friends told him he was an idiot to break up with me,” laughed Jeri.
That was presumably because they found her to be easy on the eyes. Images of Jeri in the '70s display a tall, slender, blonde with long locks and a summer tan. She said it took Fred a few months to come to his senses and by October they were dating again.
However, this time it was Jeri who was cautious. Apparently that apprehension made Fred nervous so he sealed his commitment with a proposal and they married the next year, Aug. 4, 1979.
No one actually spoke out to object when the pastor asked “If anyone objects to this union speak now?” but Jeri said there were many naysayers. The 22-year-old newlyweds had only known each other 10 months with a breakup in between, their odds of longevity was questionable.
So some believed!
Nonetheless, the Hartes' love and loyalty for one another bloomed into something others marveled at. That love manifested the creation of a family of five. They had three biological daughters, Lauren, Krystle and Jenna, and two “adopted”; a calico cat named Ginger and a dachshund pooch named Midge.
The Hartes were known for hitching a boat to the back of their vehicle and driving to the nearest campsite that lay next to a body of water.
“It wasn’t really planned, but we got our first boat when our oldest daughter, Lauren, was just 6 months old,” said Jeri. “Fred was so talented, he could fix anything with his hands. A friend hired him to restore an old vehicle for $3,000 but once Fred finished, the friend could only come up with $2,500. To save face, he offered him a small 16-foot boat. After that, we were hooked.”
They named their boat “Harte’s Desire” and it would continue to be upgraded throughout the years; today it’s a 35-footer. When the Hartes' hands weren’t steering their boat, they could be observed holding each other’s and smooching. But, life wasn’t only about leisure. Fred worked as a carpenter for 20 years, with his last place of employment being Carpenters of Chicago (COC).
“He worked there with his best friend, Brian Elvidge, whom he referred to as his little brother,” Jeri said.
Fred’s resignation from COC was forced by a cancer diagnosis. Jeri tearfully remembered the day the news came.
“I had broken my wrist and was wearing a cast. Fred went with me to the doctor to have it removed. I had been worried about him because he was fatigued a lot and his legs were really swollen.” She inhaled and spoke through tears saying, “I remember asking my doctor if he’d just have a look at his legs while we were there. After a brief exam, he sent us directly to the emergency room for several tests. Those results confirmed cancer of the liver.”
Fred was diagnosed in October of 2015. Despite a treatment regimen which proved to have successfully shrank his tumor initially, it later metastasized to his heart. Fred passed away one year later, October 2016.
A month before he died, their youngest daughter, Jenna, got married on Sept. 23 at the Silver Lake Country Club in Orland Park.
“Fred was too weak to walk her down the aisle so I wheeled him while he and Jenna held hands,” cried Jeri. “At the reception when the DJ called for the father to dance with the bride, Fred’s brothers helped support his weight so he could stand while they danced to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 'Teach Your Children.'”
Jeri granted Fred’s wishes not to have his remains put into the ground.
“There’s a little of him spread everywhere,” said Jeri. “His ashes are in the waters of Galveston Beach, Texas; Seaside, Oregon and on June 3, to acknowledge his birthday, there will be a little of him in Lake Michigan.”
She said in each instance she’s only dispensed a small portion of ashes—the large urn of his remains is with her, closely guarded.
“We were connected at the hip, we did everything together. He was silly, with a great sense of humor. We enjoyed all the same things, we still held hands, kissed and expressed our love to each other daily. I miss our conversations. It’s hard going up to an empty bed at night and waking up the next morning knowing I have to start life without him all over again.”
Jeri said she knows what she and Fred shared was rare.
“His life imitated his last name, he had such a big heart.” Jeri tearfully said. “Please tell everyone to kiss their spouses and tell them they’re loved because you might not have another chance. You may not realize what you’ll miss until you don’t have it.”
Fred’s legacy lives in his family. His oldest daughter, Lauren, learned two weeks following his passing that she and her spouse are expecting.
Jeri said she has several fond memories of Fred she will forever hold near. One of her favorites remain them dancing on the bridge of Harte’s Desire to Van Morrison’s, “Into the Mystic.” While his ashes are spread within it, she will continue to sail upon it, until they meet again.
Don’t wait for Valentine’s Day, show someone they are loved right now!
Claudia Parker is an author, photographer and a reporter. Her columns appear every second and fourth Thursday of each month. She can be reached at AuthorClaudiaParker@yahoo.com.