CEDAR RAPIDS — A wheeler-dealer, probably since the day he was born, Gene Baxter always knows the angles. So, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that in May of 1936, when he was sweet on Vern Ann Hering, he struck up a deal.
“What if she doesn’t accept it?” Gene asked the Durant jeweler as he eyed an engagement ring.
“I’ll buy it back,” the jeweler said. “And if she accepts it, I’ll buy a Plymouth coupe.”
Having been in the car business only a couple of years and already used to taking horses in on trade for new tractors, Gene was pretty confident.
“I slipped that ring on her finger,” he says. “What I’d done right there, I got a wife and sold a car.”
Vern Ann laughs at his tale as they relax in the southeast Cedar Rapids house they’ve called home for 49 years. Gene knew that was the deal of a lifetime.
For, come Monday, Gene and Vern Ann Baxter will have been married 75 years.
Yes, 75. As in three quarters of a century.
It began Jan. 17, 1936, during Iowa’s coldest winter, when Vern Ann asked Gene to turn up the heat and he obliged.
You see, Vern Ann, a registered nurse after receiving her degree in 1935 from Mercy Hospital in Davenport, had needed a car to care for patients in Plainview and Durant. Her stepfather found her a nice little Ford coupe — without a heater.
“My mother said, ‘There’s a new dealer down the street. Maybe they’ll have a heater,’” Vern Ann remembers.
That dealer was C.E. Baxter and Sons. As Gene recalls, “My brother (Albert) came in, ‘Boy, I met a slick chick today. You better meet her.’”
In the garage, Gene talked Vern Ann and two friends into letting him show them the town. Not wanting to spoil the moment, Vern Ann agreed, even though her grandfather lived down the street. “We looked at it,” she laughs, “as if we hadn’t seen it before.”
Of course, Vern Ann got the heater — $16 installed, says Gene, who bought them 48 at a time.
And, not long thereafter, Gene tested her by pulling up to her grandfather’s house. He held up some money and said “You lost a $10 bill.”
“I had quite a bit of money then,” Vern Ann recalls. “I’d been working and got paid.”
So she counted the money in her purse, then replied, “No, I didn’t.”
Gene smiles. “I knew right then she was honest and trustworthy.”
After that wedding day, Aug. 22, 1936, the adventure began.
With $200 in savings they drove to the West Coast and back for a two-week honeymoon. Gas was 19 cents a gallon, so they returned with $22.11.
They bought their first house for $2,500 in Durant, then in 1938 moved to Cedar Rapids when Gene became a Chrysler-Plymouth distributor. He opened Baxter Motors, Inc., at 829 Second Ave. SE, and later moved to a new building at 629 A Ave. NE, selling Chrysler products and Mack trucks.
They had three children, Bill, now 70 of Cedar Rapids, Rick, 65, of Marion, and Barbara Thomsen, 63, who lives on a farm near Ryan.
While they sold the Cedar Rapids dealership in 1963, they had the Chrysler-Plymouth-John Deere-Maytag business they started in 1943 in Coggon until 1978. They also had an RV, snowmobile, boat and motorcycle business in Manchester for 14 years and an RV dealership in Coralville for 11 years.
In 1979 they retired. Vern Ann keeps busy with bridge and PEO while Gene stays out of her hair, helping around their daughter’s farm most afternoons after he goes out for breakfast every morning. At first it was International Pastries at Lindale Mall but now it’s Panera Bread on Collins Road NE.
“He’s a Panera guru,” Vern Ann says. “I’ve never gone out there. I’m afraid he’ll embarrass me,” she laughs.
Gene loves socializing with folks he’s known for decades and those he’s just met. His big day is April Fools because he likes to pull little pranks to make everyone smile.
Gene turned 98 on June 18; Vern Ann will on Nov. 24. While her father died of kidney disease at age 38, longevity runs in Gene’s family. His sister, Florence McChesney of Phoenix, is 102.
Having taken dozens of vacations, including Europe, Brazil and driving an RV to Alaska, Vern Ann and Gene will celebrate Monday’s anniversary quietly at home.
After all, 75 years has been quite a trip.