Written by Elizabeth Swanson | Photographs: courtesy of Kristina Rose Photography
Last July — 50 years after Ted and Karen Birkholz first said their wedding vows — they recited them again in a surprise anniversary celebration. This time, though, those vows held a different meaning.
“I had tears running down my cheeks, just thinking about the promises we had made before our family and before God so many years ago,” Karen says. “For 50 years we had lived those vows, through good days and bad, and we will continue to say them until God calls us home.”
The couple, who live in Clinton Township, met at Concordia Teachers College (now Concordia University) in Nebraska. Their worlds collided when Karen was moving into her dorm as a freshman and Ted, a senior, was helping students (including Karen) and parents carry suitcases, trunks and boxes to their rooms. Several weeks later, he sent her a message through student mail, asking her to see a movie with him on campus.
Karen says she was immediately attracted to Ted’s Christian faith and kindness. For him, it was her faith and how quick she was to forgive. But the timing wasn’t right. After graduation, Ted got a teaching job out of state and they split up and lost connection.
Five years later, Karen, who was teaching in Montana, got a summer job at a Lutheran camp in Arcadia, near Frankfort on Lake Michigan. She then found out though a church directory that Ted was in Michigan too, teaching in Mount Clemens. She wrote him several letters and tossed them out, before finally mailing one to him. Once he received the letter, he immediately drove across the state to see Karen.
“We reconnected in June and married that August,” Karen says. “We didn’t want to wait. We knew it was right. We take good care of each other. There are certain things I do well, certain things he does well, and it works.”
They have two children, Suzanne and Mark, and four grandchildren. In fact, it was Suzanne, Mark and their spouses who planned the surprise vow renewal.
Any good surprise party needs an airtight cover story: theirs was getting the family together for a professional photo session at George George Memorial Park in Clinton Township. It was a perfect way to get Karen and Ted dressed up without arousing suspicion. Suzanne’s husband found and booked the photographer, Kristina Muir of Kristina Rose Photography. While they were taking pictures, guests would gather in the park — about 30 people. Karen’s friend volunteered to make one of her famous vanilla almond cakes.
As they headed back to the car after pictures, Karen and Ted noticed a familiar-looking crowd. “We were both so surprised,” Karen says. “Kristina captured a photo of my hand clasped over my mouth. It was just so nice to be all together. That was my favorite part — sharing our love with friends and family.”
So what advice do Karen and Ted have for young couples on making it to 50 years?
“I think you have to go into marriage knowing that you are two different people who love each other and who have made these promises,” Karen says. “There will be hard days and easy days. It’s about loving each other and forgiving each other — realizing that you both make mistakes and that everyone needs grace.”
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