Whatever the dance, “sparks flew and it was truly love at first sight.”
That’s the way Rose Mary Kastl Hayes remembered her first meeting with her eventual husband John Hayes nearly 70 years ago. But Rose’s family didn’t see her beloved Johnny quite the same way.
The Kastl clan, descendants of Czech immigrants, thought John, a born-in-Chicago son of a union strikebreaker, was a bit on the rowdy side. Nevertheless, after Rose and John, by then an Army private, were wed on March 15, 1944, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the family eventually came to accept the union.
Within a year, her first child, Samuel John, was born. A second child, Linda Mary, would follow three years later, setting her course for the most important role of her life – raising her family.
The youngest of seven children, Rose’s father was 49 years old when she was born. Her youngest sibling at the time was 13 and her only sister, Sophie, was 17. She adored her father, who included young Rose in the family’s Depression-era wine-making – from picking the grapes to corking the bottles. Much of Rose’s care as a young girl was assigned to Sophie.
A shy girl, Rose saw her mother as old-fashioned and too set in her Czech ways. Nevertheless, Rose learned to become an excellent cook from her mother and later attended class to better understand the Czech language. As a young student in Catholic schools, however, Rose admitted in later years that she felt inferior to her wealthier classmates.
That feeling of inferiority faded a bit after a teacher in her final year of high school remarked that it was too bad she wasn’t going to college because she was such a good writer. Drawings from her school years showed that Rose had artistic talent, too.
Rose worked at several jobs as a young woman, including clerking in a dime store and desk work for one of Omaha’s many insurance companies. But she gave it all up to be a full-time mother to Sam and Linda.
Besides taking an active role – including president of the PTA – at her children’s schools, Rose vowed that her kids would never have reason to feel inferior to any other children. As she and John traveled their nearly 51-year life journey together, Rose knew that despite persistent financial and health struggles, there was plenty of opportunity for young families.
She took her kids on streetcars and buses to attractions everywhere in Omaha, including parks, libraries, museums and art centers, all within her limited family budget. The family almost always found a way to enjoy a family vacation in the summer, too – from visiting Mount Rushmore to lengthier jaunts to visit friends in Florida.
She saved pennies in a small bank to make certain her kids received a good Catholic education, including high school at Omaha’s Bishop Ryan High School. She was exceptionally proud that Sam and Linda graduated from college, found work and married. They produced six grandkids – all college graduates – and two great-grandchildren.
Through the years, John remained the driving force in her life. John and Rose found time in their retirement years to visit Las Vegas 27 times before John died in 1995.
Health issues forced Rose from the home she and John shared for their entire married life, and she lived in a succession of apartments before liver failure sent her to Hospice House in Omaha just before Thanksgiving.
After John’s death, Rose admitted that losing family members and friends as she aged was difficult for her. Of death she said, “The older you get, the more you welcome it.”
At one particularly low point, she questioned why she had lived so long when she could no longer do things to help other people. Then, after thinking about that for a while, it came to her. She lit into a smile.
God kept her alive because so many people could see she needed help and they stopped to help her, she explained. Her purpose, then, was to make other people better because they took the time to be kind.
Rose died on Dec. 31. As the family gathers for final farewells this week, they can take comfort in knowing that Rose and her beloved Johnny are dancing together again.
Photo: In April 1943, John Hayes was a 31-year-old enlisted man in the United States Army. Rose Kastl was a 23-year-old from Omaha, the same hometown as John. A year before they married in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, they enjoyed some time together in San Antonio, Texas, where an unknown photographer snapped this photo of them holding hands while walking down a San Antonio street.