In 1941, the year America entered World War II, Ernie and Lulu Harwell entered the world of matrimony. Thankfully, the latter engagement far outlasted the former.
But then, the latter was based on love, real, unbreakable love, the love borne of respect and honor and kindness and shared ideals. Ernie and Lulu Harwell may not have been perfect people, but they had the perfect marriage, for nearly seven decades.
And now, nine years after death dared to separate them, death has made amends.
They are back together.
“Miss Lulu,” as Ernie often called her, passed away Friday afternoon at the tender age of 99, seven years beyond her husband’s longevity mark, although she would hate to have that pointed out, because she disliked anything that put a spotlight on her.
“I know some announcers’ wives have a difficult time with this life,” she once told me. “But I knew Ernie would be doing this from the day I married him. We used to walk in the parks in Atlanta — we didn’t own a car then — and he would say, ‘What do you want to hear? Baseball? Tennis? Golf?’ And I would pick and he would start announcing, right there, a make-believe game.”
When the games became real, Lulu Harwell, a bright, young college grad who loved poetry and English literature, dove into the solo demands that many baseball announcers’ wives know all too well. The kids were largely her responsibility. The house and the bills were largely her responsibility. The school stuff. The garden. The pick-ups and drop-offs at the airport.
But if you’re expecting resentment, you’re reading the wrong love story. Eras do matter, and this was a different era. For two kids who met at a college dance in 1940, who once got in school trouble for sharing a single kiss, who married as a war raged and waited four years for Ernie to finish his service, resentment, ego, or “What’s in it for me?” were as alien as a ballgame broadcast in Lithuanian.
Lulu Harwell could not have been prouder of her spouse or her marriage. The only person possibly prouder was Ernie. They complimented each other. They deferred to each other. Lulu was forever gracious, elegant, humble — and beautiful. Early photos remind you of actress Donna Reed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Which come to think of it, could have been written on their anniversary cakes.
Love, and humility
“Lulu and Ernie Harwell had the finest marriage of anybody I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime,” said Gary Spicer, the couple’s longtime friend and attorney. “They were extremely compatible. And extremely theological. They did Bible study together every day.”
That helped fuel the humility for which the couple was well known. You could go an entire evening with Ernie and Lulu Harwell and never hear a boastful word. I know. I spent evenings like that with them.
The most memorable was a year or so before Ernie passed away, when Spicer was coaxing me to write a play about Ernie’s career. We met at the Harwell’s home — Lulu served bowls of butter pecan ice cream — and between the two of them, they were so humble about the idea, I half imagined if it came out too complimentary, they would order the curtain down by intermission.
Blessedly, the play actually came to pass, albeit a couple years after Ernie died. And Lulu came to the opening performance. It was the highlight of the night.
She was elegant. She was shy. She fought back tears much of the night. We brought her on stage to present her with flowers and she gave the cast the highest compliment.
“It felt as if I were watching Ernie in front of me,” she said.
I still don’t think the actors have gotten over that.
Reunited, at last
Lulu was born Lula Tankersley, in Hazard, Kentucky. Her father, a railroad man, died in a train accident when she was 4 years old, and her mother supported the family by working at a beauty shop. Struggle was no stranger to her story. According to Spicer, Lulu suffered some cardiac issues in recent years, as well as general health decay.
But at 99, she could still maintain a conversation, and Spicer said most of those conversations led back to Ernie.
“She was the most non-diva person you could ever meet,” he said. “She was both humble and sweet.”
And patient. For so many years, she waited for Ernie to come home, jamming a chair under the door to feel safe, listening to him do the Tigers broadcasts — they had transistor radios in every room in the house — and estimating how long it would be before he could call her and say goodnight.
Finally, after nearly 50 years of the baseball announcer life, Lulu Harwell got her husband back, all to herself. And then, in 2010, she lost him to cancer.
And a different kind of waiting began.
Well. That wait is over. You may or may not believe in heaven, but Ernie and Lulu did. And the hereafter simply cannot exist if these two are not in it right now, taking one of those long walks they often spoke about, or tending a garden.
Farewell to the First Lady of the broadcast booth. In the “Ernie” play, most of the lines came from my interviews with Harwell himself. But one line I invented from whole cloth, only because it seemed so fitting. Ernie is telling a young boy about his wedding. His eyes go far away and his smile is nostalgic.
“Did you have a honeymoon?” the boy asks.
“Uh-huh,” Ernie says.
“How’d it go?”
“I’ll let you know,” Ernie whispers, “when it’s over.”
If there is any justice in the cosmos today, that honeymoon never ended; in fact, it’s just getting started.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.