Mary & Charlie Rueger
Mary Ellerkamp caught her first glimpse of blond and handsome Charlie Rueger at their parents’ German social club. “I was 14, he was 18, and he did not know I was alive,” she said.
Her first chance to change that came four years later, in 1952, also at a Catholic Kolping Society event.
“She was singing in the chorus, and she stood out — she was so pretty,” said Charlie, then fresh out of Navy basic training and on leave. He and his buddy made a bet on who would dance with her first.
“I’ve never danced with a sailor before,” Mary said as they took the floor.
The next time they saw each other, Charlie was in a Philadelphia Naval Hospital bed. He fell ill on the way to aviation mechanic school in Jacksonville, Fla., and was hospitalized there, where he was diagnosed with a serious kidney issue. Charlie was far from his Rhawnhurst home and lonely, his mom said as she passed his address around the Kolping. Mary’s letters kept him up to date on Philadelphia; his mostly said how very bored he was.
Charlie persuaded his commanding officer to transfer him to the South Philadelphia hospital and Mary took three modes of public transportation to get there from her home in Olney.
“It was nice, and I was interested,” said Charlie. “But there were other girls who came to see me, too.”
After he was discharged from the hospital (and medically discharged from the Navy) the two began to date. Going out with different people until choosing your steady was expected, but Mary chose Charlie at the beginning of their courtship, while Charlie kept dating others even after giving her a friendship ring in her senior year at Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls.
In the winter of 1955, Charlie broke things off with Mary to see other girls — again.
But six months later, he was with his buddies at a resort in the Poconos when he found himself profoundly lonely, specifically for Mary. He drove back to Philly, found her at the Kolping picnic, and convinced her to let him drive her home so they could talk. Outside her parents’ house in his 1950 Ford convertible, Mary told Charlie she was finished with this on-again, off-again heartache. Charlie said he was finished with all other girls forever, and he wanted to marry her.
“Well, I’m going to get married,” Mary told her parents. “To whom?” they asked.
On their way home from midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Charlie drove Mary to their favorite necking spot in Pennypack Park and officially asked her to be his wife. They wed at the now-defunct St. Henry’s Roman Catholic Church on June 9, 1956. At the Kolping, 100 guests ate cold cuts and the cake a baker friend had given and danced to the music of a cousin’s band.
Mary worked as a secretary at the Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Co. while Charlie finished his business and accounting degree at La Salle then went to work for the American Sugar Refining Co.
“We wanted children, but for five years, that did not happen,” Mary said. Charlie and his fraternity brothers had spent significant time with the children at a Catholic Charities orphanage and he had told Mary all about that meaningful experience. The two came to realize this was the way they were meant to build their family.
Charles (Chuck) Jr. came home in 1962, followed by Mary Clare in 1964 and Matthew in 1966.
Mary left her secretarial job when the babies started coming. When Matthew was 2, she realized a dream delayed and began taking night classes at Bucks County Community College. “It took me 10 years to finish my associate’s degree,” she said. Charlie encouraged her to go further. “I knew she was good at it — she is so intelligent — and I felt it was necessary for her to have enough education so that, in case something happened to me, she would have a source of income,” he said.
She earned her bachelor’s in early childhood education from Gwynned Mercy and taught preschool for 20 years at Tiny Tots in New Hope and St. Paul’s in Warrington. In 1972, Charlie started his own successful business, a Taylor Rentals franchise.
The Rueger family is a fun one. The couple and their kids took their pop-up trailer to many parks. They traveled most of the East Coast and Midwest. They sailed. And Mary and Charlie host extended family picnics and holiday gatherings at their Warrington, Bucks County, home.
Mary, who is now 85, and Charlie, who is now 89, retired in 1998 and commenced traveling. Their children grew up and started their own families, and the Ruegers now have eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. They also share their home with Philo, a cairn terrier mix.
“I like to say I married him because he was good-looking, he had a nice car, and he is a good dancer,” Mary said. “But it turns out that he is an extremely good person, a decent, kind, and loving person.”
One of Charlie’s talents is giving gifts that make the recipient feel cherished. “One Christmas, I had to follow a long ribbon that took me into the front yard — and there was a sleigh!” Mary said.
“I mean it, I love her more today than I did the day we got married,” said Charlie. He loves that they share their Catholic faith and the joy of family, but “what I’m really enthralled with is her stick-to-itiveness.”
Mary did not give up on him when he wasn’t ready to truly go steady. She did not give up on her college degree. And she did not give up on their marriage about a decade ago when her usually kind and loving Charlie suddenly was not.
Charlie had experienced a series of hard losses: a close friend from college died and then his beloved dog, Gus. It sent him into darkness. He slept all the time, had no ability to focus, and cared about very few things.
“I would make some effort like ‘let’s go for a drive, let’s watch this funny show on television,’ and he had no interest,” said Mary. Other times, Charlie says he was bombarded by a myriad of ideas and he shopped compulsively.
He was misdiagnosed with ministrokes and other things until finally, in his 70s, a psychiatrist told him he was bipolar. “At first, I denied it completely,” Charlie said.
Over the next five years, there would be four long-term hospitalizations and several shorter ones. He would get better, then stop taking his medicine and be worse again.
“We promised each other ‘For better or for worse,’ said Mary. “We had had 50 years of the better, and so if this was the worse, I could have hardly complained. And if I were sick, I have no doubt that whatever my illness would be, Charlie would do whatever was necessary to handle it.”
It wasn’t just Mary, but their children who rallied around Charlie. He wanted to talk about his mental illness to encourage others to seek and accept help. “Like diabetes or heart disease, this is a medical condition that is treatable,” he said.
Once Charlie accepted he had a condition that was not going away, but that could be well managed with medication, therapy, and practice, life could be steadily good again. Both he and Mary also acknowledge that, as in most aspects of marriage and life, things are challenging sometimes.
With Charlie’s health stabilized, their marriage is back to “for better,” said Mary. And with COVID-19 shots in their arms and warmer weather here, things are now especially bright.
Today, for the first time since spring 2020, the Ruegers will once again gather together at the family homestead to celebrate Mary on Mother’s Day.
And one month from Mother’s Day, Mary and Charlie will celebrate the love, joy, and effort it took for them to reach their 65th wedding anniversary.