John Henning spotted her as she walked down a sidewalk on a November day. She was tall with blond hair, and she looked confident as she moved with her shoulders pulled back.
John was 23 and just out of the Navy when he saw JoAnn Stephens that day in 1955 in downtown Auburn, Neb.
He had stepped out of a barber shop, and she walked right past him, giving a smile.
Not a big smile, but it was sweet, her lips together, curling up to the corners of her mouth.
Who was that pretty girl, he wondered.
John walked to his car but remembered he needed to mail a letter, so he stopped by the post office.
As he stood at a clerk’s window, he heard a voice at the next window. He glanced to his side, and spotted her again. It was JoAnn, the same young woman he saw outside the barber shop. She was smiling and visiting with a postal clerk.
John, who grew up on a farm in southeast Nebraska, was ready to meet a girl and start a family. After four years in the Navy, he had moved back home and had enrolled at Peru State College, where he was earning a teaching degree.
As he drove home from the post office, he wished he had said hello and introduced himself to that pretty girl.
He figured he’d never see her again.
JoAnn was 22 at the time. She grew up in Brownville, Neb., and was working as an operator for a phone company. John had caught her attention, and she wanted to know who he was.
It turned out that one of her co-workers was a distant cousin of John’s, and another co-worker dated a classmate of his at Peru State.
She asked her co-worker’s boyfriend to pass along her name and number to John in class.
The next morning John received a note from his classmate with a phone number on it. All his classmate said was, “JoAnn Stephens.”
John had no idea it was the same girl he had seen in downtown Auburn. But he was up for a blind date, so he gave her a call and asked her out to watch the movie “Oklahoma.” The plan was for him to pick her up when she got off work at the phone company.
On the evening of their date, John parked his 1953 Plymouth near the phone company and waited for her. As he stepped out of his car, he saw his date walk out of the phone company.
It was the same pretty girl that turned his head a few days before.
He couldn’t believe it. He got a second chance.
The date went well, and he asked her out again. Soon they were dating regularly, going to movies, watching Peru State basketball games and driving to Omaha to watch an ice skating show.
They fell in love, and married six months later, on May 27, 1956, in Brownville.
John became a teacher, and he and JoAnn moved to Beatrice, Neb., and had two sons. JoAnn stayed home with their boys but eventually worked in the nursery of a local hospital, where she changed diapers, bathed newborns and taught new moms how to breast feed.
It was common for women to stop her in public and thank her for helping them get their babies to eat.
JoAnn was a great cook, and John loved her gooseberry pie and homemade corn bread. She was a good seamstress, making shirts for John and blouses for herself.
She loved picking beans, strawberries and other food they grew in their garden.
John taught mostly industrial arts in junior high for 35 years, retiring in 1993 from the Beatrice Public Schools. JoAnn retired from her hospital job about the same time.
About a dozen years ago, JoAnn started to develop memory problems, and she was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
In December 2010, at age 77, she died from complications of the disease.
John still thinks about the first time he saw her, walking past him on the sidewalk.
“It was her smile,’’ John said. “It will always be in my mind.”