Tuesday, September 18, 2007

After 66 years, a love story that almost wasn't comes to its end


It was the summer of 1941. Bill Simon, 19, was staying in a cottage with his family on Conesus Lake in upstate New York. Sailboats skimmed across the lake's breathtaking surface, a mile wide and 8 miles long. The United States had not yet joined the war in Europe, and Bill's biggest problem was a girl whose parents had rented the cottage two doors down.

Helen Clark was 18. She had long black hair and blue-gray eyes. Bill liked the way she looked in a bathing suit.

They talked and swam in the lake. Bill was quickly smitten. He confessed his attraction to a friend named Wes, who dropped the bombshell.

"He said, 'Bill, forget about it. She's engaged,'" Bill said.

It was true. Charlie Moran was five years Helen's senior and a graduate agriculture student. When Bill met Charlie, Charlie was taking a course in the artificial insemination of farm animals.

"He was getting cows pregnant," Bill said.

Which meant that Charlie was gone a lot. Bill and Helen swam in the lake together, and talked for hours. They found reasons to be together: His cottage had a better beach for sunbathing; Helen and her parents needed a fourth bridge player.

Once, as they sat on a raft, Helen asked Bill if he would wash her hair. On a balmy day he would never forget, Bill ran his hands and the soap through her long black hair. It was as close as he would ever get to her, he thought.

Bill resigned himself to not getting the girl of his dreams. So at the State University of New York in Geneseo, he began dating another woman.

Helen attended the same college. Charlie would come down to visit. From time to time, Bill would see the two of them sitting in Charlie's car.

Then Bill took Helen to a dance. On the way home, they stopped at a park. He kissed her "a couple of times, maybe more."

One wedding was canceled, another was in the works.

In Geneseo, Bill ran an insurance company. Helen, now his wife, helped out part time. Gary Simon, a son, said his mother loved to pull out her best china and crystal for parties, loved playful jousting and repartee; the guests loved her Waldorf salad.

"She got along with people better than I did," said Bill Simon, 85.

Helen liked dancing and Benny Goodman and Lawrence Welk. She had read all of Danielle Steele's novels, her husband said.

Over the last several years of her life, Parkinson's disease sapped Helen's mobility and her speech. Bill visited his wife daily at Cypress Creek, an assisted living facility in Sun City Center, and was elated two weeks ago when she answered his greeting and kiss by saying, "Hi."

Early Saturday, the Cypress Creek staff notified Bill that Helen was slipping. He sat by her bed and held her hand.

"She had a good grip on it, too," Bill said.

At about 3 a.m. on Saturday, her grip relaxed.

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