Tom and Winnie Eckert: 65 years, 14 kids, always lots of love

Tom and Winnie Eckert have cut back on the size of their garden, now that their kids are all out of the house, but after 65 years of marriage they’re still enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.
Tom and Winnie Eckert have cut back on the size of their garden, now that their kids are all out of the house, but after 65 years of marriage they’re still enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Dec. 7, 2015.

It all started at a skating party.

He was 16; she was 15.

“She went to a skating party with … ,” he says.

“Oh, don’t name names,” she says, interrupting him good-naturedly.

“And I took her home,” he says. “And that was the beginning.”

Five years after that, they were married. And 65 years after that, the Huntington County couple is still married.

“Just a lot of love,” Tom Eckert says.

His bride, known many years ago as Winnie Nicholson, pats him affectionately on the leg.

“You know, that’s what it amounts to,” she says. “But we’ve got God to thank for the years we’ve got now. It’s a blessing; it’s just a blessing.”

In 65 years, they’ve worked together to nearly rebuild their first house on Home Street in Huntington, harvested and preserved enough food from their garden to feed a family that eventually included 14 kids, welcomed all the kids’ friends into their home — and had a good time doing it.

“We never had words, never, ever, ever,” Winnie says.

Sure, there were times when they didn’t agree, but they always managed to work it out, they say.

“Never had an argument,” Tom says. “Our kids never, ever heard us argue.”

“We were always positive, never negative,” Winnie says.

She tells the story of the time she did some major damage to son Jerry’s car while Jerry was away in the service.

“I backed up, and I tore the bottom out on a stake or something,” Winnie says.

Tom took a look at the damage and, without a word, started in on the extensive repair job.

“Four o’clock in the morning, he said, ‘Mom, you’ve got your car.’ He stayed up all night, and then he went to work,” she says. “And that’s all he said, was ‘Mom, you’ve got your car.’”

They were enamored of each other from the beginning, to the consternation of at least one teacher at Huntington Catholic High School.

“We used to have chorus practice in what’s the auditorium now, and he’d get up in the risers and he’d always try to stand right next to me,” Winnie says. “By golly, that nun, she’d look at us, and she’d move him, and as soon as she turned around, he was right back there next to me.”

He’d walk her almost all the way home from school — she lived on what’s now Bus.-24, near Our Sunday Visitor, and he lived on Home Street — and then run back to school for basketball practice.

They were 20 and 21 when they got married on Oct. 28, 1950, dashing the hopes of Winnie’s parents that she marry a doctor or a lawyer. Tom was a blue collar guy, working for a plumbing company. And he made her happy.

“Well, I’ll tell you, these hands mean the most to me of anything in the world,” she says. “I mean, they’re work hands.”

While Tom stayed in the plumbing business until retiring at age 62, Winnie’s post-graduation job at a Singer sewing center in downtown Huntington was short-lived.

“That didn’t last too long after we got married,” Tom says. “Kathy was born nine months and one day after we got married … My aunt just ‘knew’ we had to get married.”

By then, they’d bought a house on Home Street — “a monstrous house,” Winnie says — across the street from where Tom grew up.

“I bought it for $6,500,” Tom says. “Can you imagine that? Well, I was only making a dollar and a quarter an hour, too, and I thought, ‘Boy, how am I ever going to get this paid for?’ After I made the first payment, I owed more than I had borrowed.

“So that told me something, right there. That’s the only money I ever borrowed. I never borrowed money after that. Everything we bought, we bought 90 days same as cash or paid cash.”

The house, which had previously served as a rental, needed some work. With help from his brother Jack Eckert, Tom tore down an old barn on the back of the property and used the lumber to build a two-story addition that housed a bathroom on the first floor.

With the family expanding, they later added a bathroom on the second floor as well.

They put in a new kitchen, and later replaced a heating stove in the living room with a hot water heating system to serve the entire house. The rest of the lumber from the barn was used to build a garage.

“You did all your own work, everything,” Winnie says, pride evident in her voice.

The kids eventually got in on the act, with oldest sons Jerry and Anthony deciding one day to dig out the basement to make it bigger. The basement had a brick floor, so Tom used the bricks to build a new chimney, pouring a new cement floor in the basement.

Another time, the two boys decided to get rid of a swarm of bees in an apple tree.

“Jerry climbed the apple tree to get the bees out,” Winnie says.

“Anthony was holding the box underneath him and Jerry shook the limb, and bees came down all over Anthony,” Tom says. “I think you had to take him to the hospital.”

“I did,” Winnie says. “I couldn’t do anything for him at home. Couldn’t count the number of times he got stung.”

The full house on Home Street became a second home to many of the neighborhood kids.

“All the neighbors lived at the Eckerts’,” Winnie says. “That’s where all the kids in the neighborhood were. All those kids were in our back yard.”

“When Jerry and Anthony were in high school, I was laid off for about five months, and we built a dune buggy,” Tom says. “Jerry’s still got it. They’d drive it all the time. We always did things like that, always had something going on, and all of Jerry and Anthony’s friends were up there when we were building that dune buggy.”

“In the summer, my kitchen was a cannery,” Winnie says. “And all they neighbors came over. They’d come and they’d sit in the house and they’d do peaches.”

Every other kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable was also canned, frozen or otherwise preserved to feed the family throughout the year — a process echoed as daughter Connie and her husband Nick Gast later owned a cannery in Ohio for many years.

“I’ll never forget the time we were doing red beets,” Winnie says.

Tom chuckles.

“We had a kids’ wading pool in the back yard and that thing was heaped with beets,” he says.

“And they’d cut the tops off,” Winnie adds. “It was such a different world then. Everybody was always together.

“But it was fun for them. You know, you don’t hear about that nowadays. Mothers are all working and their kids don’t congregate. It’s a different world.”

Life revolved around the kids.

“Every baby I ever had, I nursed all of them, never had a bottle in the house,” Winnie says. “They didn’t have the kind of diaper they have now.”

“Date nights” — today’s prescription for keeping a marriage strong — were unheard of.

“Sometimes when I had time to go to bed at night,” Winnie says, laughing. “Usually I was washing and waxing the kitchen floor. I was up nursing babies all the time.”

“We did go to Toronto, when your cousin took his first vows for the priesthood,” Tom says. “But there wasn’t any young ones then.”

“You know, we never missed a Mass going together on Sunday,” Winnie says. “All the kids together. I never went to bed at night, I guess. “But they always had something to wear and we always got to church on time and we always went together.

“For people who raise kids today, they’re going to think it’s a far-fetched story.”

Eventually oldest daughter Kathy left home to go to school in Chicago, then got married and stayed in the city for a while. She and husband Gary Bishop eventually decided to move back to Huntington, and Tom and Winnie packed the other 13 kids in a station wagon to bring the couple home — nearly having a run-in with a train on the way.

“We just made it across,” Tom says. “And I decided that was the last time I was going to Chicago. I haven’t been back since.”

Kathy and Gary moved back into her parents’ house for a few weeks until they found a place of their own, temporarily upping the number of “kids” at home to 15.

“Our kids, they all get along,” Tom says. “In most families, there’s always one of them that doesn’t get along with the rest of them, but we don’t have that. We never had a problem with any of them.”

Twelve of the 14 kids are now married with kids of their own, giving Tom and Winnie 49 grandchildren and 59 great-grandchildren, with three more greats on the way. Shelves on the Eckerts’ living room wall hold many of the grandkids’ framed graduation pictures.

Eight of the kids still live in Huntington County — Kathy and husband Gary Bishop, Jerry and wife Diane Eckert, Carol and husband Larry Hohe, Cindy and husband Kevin Prus, Margaret and husband Larry PeGan, Anthony and wife Sarah Eckert, Rose and husband Brian Carroll and George and wife Terri Eckert.

Close by are Connie and husband Nick Gast and Dr. Julia Eckert, all in Ohio; Mary Ann and husband Mark Schaefer, in Columbia City; and Sarah and husband Mike Garrison, in Fort Wayne. Only two have ventured farther — Rev. Tom Eckert, in Arizona, and Clare and husband Roger Hunckler, in North Carolina.

There was a time when they all came home for Christmas, but the logistics eventually got in the way.

“I’ll tell you when it got too big,” Winnie says. “When they had to come and fill their plates in the kitchen and go out the back door because there wasn’t room, and they had to go to the front door … When it got to be 85, they hardly fit.”

“The kids have all got their own families now, and they like to have Christmas at home,” Tom adds. “There’s a couple of them still come.”

“Home” is now in rural Huntington County, halfway between Huntington and Markle, and has been since the youngest child was a baby.

“Father Tom was in diapers,” Tom says. “That’s been about 43, 44 years ago.”

“Father Tom,” the baby of the family, is now Rev. Tom Eckert, CSC, pastor of a Catholic church in Arizona. The next-to-the-youngest, Julia, is a pediatrician practicing in Ohio, and Winnie finds some humor in the chosen professions of her two youngest kids.

“The last two, a doctor and a priest,” she says with a laugh. “One to usher them into the world, and one to usher them out.”

The garden is still a fixture at the “new” house.

“When we first moved here, we had three acres in garden,” Winnie remembers.

“We just have a small garden now,” Tom says.

Son Jerry, now that he’s retired, has taken on the job of tilling the garden, and the other kids are frequent visitors.

“They all come home and if there’s anything to do, they work like they lived here,” Winnie says.

“We never hire anything done,” Tom adds.

The kids have added a room to the house, put on new siding and roof, replaced ceilings and floors, closed up windows and doors. Son George and his kids took on the job of installing metal siding and a lighted cupola on the outbuildings.

Which leaves Tom and Winnie to do other things. A miniature rocking chair, bentwood oak with a cane seat, sits in the living room, one of 22 Tom made after daughter Julia asked him to repair the seat of a similar chair for a friend.

“He just looked at it and made a pattern,” Winnie says.

And there’s the garden and its gifts.

“Our freezer’s full,” Winnie says. “We’ve never eaten anything that wasn’t cooked from the garden. Besides meat, everything comes from the garden.

“We always have our own celery, carrots, beans and corn and everything. It’s a lot of time, but it’s our life. And we do everything together.”

This time of year, they’re preserving pears plucked from trees out back; Tom is meticulously storing carrots in sand so they’ll keep through the winter. Everything will eventually end up on the table.

“There wasn’t much left from last winter,” Tom says.

“In the evening, we just sit and watch television, and the kids come,” Winnie says.

It’s a rare night when someone doesn’t stop by to visit.

“Every night, she says, ‘Well, I wonder who’s going to come tomorrow,” Tom says.