Helen Herbst wasn’t allowed to date until she turned 18.
When her birthday came around in 1941, it didn’t take her long to set her sights on neighbor Ken Thill.
Five years apart in age, Ken and Helen didn’t know each other all that well, but they both grew up on family farms in the Center Grove area, which is now part of Dubuque.
“The threshing crews would come through every year, and we’d all meet at each other’s house to do threshing,” Helen said. “That’s how we met.”
They got to know each other dancing at Crystal Ballroom, but their courtship was interrupted when Ken was called up to serve in World War II.
“Before he left, I couldn’t hardly see it, but he gave me a diamond,” Helen said.
When the Thills finally married after the war on June 26, 1946, Helen was 23 and Ken was about to turn 28.
Seventy-five years later, this will be the couple’s annual busy week. On Tuesday, June 22, Helen turns 98. On Saturday, June 26, they celebrate their 75th anniversary. On Sunday, June 27, Ken turns 103.
“June is always an exciting month for our family,” daughter Iyla Ferguson said.
Reflecting on being married for three-quarters of a century, Helen noted that “every one was a happy year.”
But the beginning of their time together started with time apart because of the war.
Ken served as a driver in the 85th Infantry Division, delivering ammunition and food to the front lines.
“We landed in North Africa, and from there, we went over to Italy,” Ken said.
While Ken was overseas, Helen spent her days operating a drill press at the A.Y. McDonald manufacturing plant, working on valves for the U.S. Navy. She largely was in the dark regarding what was happening with Ken.
“They didn’t write very often,” Helen said. “I don’t know whether they couldn’t or if they were kept busy. He was a terrible writer.”
But Helen wrote a letter every night.
She also would attend novena prayers at St. Patrick Church every Friday night.
“That church was full every Friday night,” Helen said. “I walked from A.Y. McDonald straight to church.”
As the war ended, Ken was sent home. They were reunited in August 1945, but the couple wanted a summer wedding. They waited until the next June and held a service at St. Columbkille Catholic Church.
They celebrated with a dance at Crystal Ballroom and honeymooned in Brownsville, Texas.
Through the G.I. Bill, Ken got a job as an autobody mechanic at International Harvester Co.
“There was nothing to be had for apartments,” Helen said, describing the couple’s first house together — a farmhouse with no indoor toilets.
After a couple of years, the Thills bought land from Ken’s parents and built their own house. They stayed there until 2018, when Ken and Helen moved to Oak Park Place.
Outside their door at Oak Park, the couple has proudly decorated with flowers and their wedding portrait to celebrate their anniversary this month.
Niece Mary Ann Jacob visits often. She remembers hearing from Helen that she often makes a special point of giving Ken a kiss on the cheek when she passes by.
Ken and Helen have three children, Ferguson, Terri Krueger and Thomas Thill. They now have four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
For a few years, Ken ran Kenny Thill Body Shop. He fixed up a vehicle for each of his three children, Ferguson said.
Helen was a homemaker, though some years she worked for A.Y. McDonald and Frommelt Industries. After three years, Thill left his body shop to work for Dubuque Packing Co. and Buick.
The Thills had a large garden and gathered black walnuts each year.
“We were both hunters,” Helen said. “We both had guns and went squirrel hunting. We’d also see and find all these walnuts. We’d pick them up, and in the wintertime, we’d crack walnuts.”
Today, Ken enjoys puzzles, and Helen has spent more than 19,000 hours crocheting afghans for the American Legion. She also makes dozens of hats each year to donate to children in Dubuque schools.
“We were the best of friends, regardless of what happened,” Helen said. “We never got mad at each other and stayed mad ... even today.”