Wagner Romance, Redux
It started with a fencing match.
It ended with him holding her hand as she left this world.
In between, there were more than 60 years apart — years lived richly and fully, with spouses and children and careers, in far-flung regions of the country.
But, as he wrote to her in January 2010, “I have never forgotten you.”
The opening act of this romance took place at Wagner College. It was September 1939 when Carl E. Heilsberg enrolled. Bernice Mikkelsen, known to all as Mickey, had already begun her studies at the College the previous semester.
Men’s and women’s fencing teams had been established a few years earlier at Wagner College by Coach Ray Miller. Carl saw a flyer inviting students to try out. He had begun fencing while attending Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and had trained at the nearby club of the legendary Giorgio “Papa” Santelli, coach of the U.S. National and Olympic teams, who offered his considerable expertise for free to talented Stuyvesant students. So, when Wagner’s Coach Miller found out who Carl was and where he had come from, he said, “What are you doing here? You are the fencing team!” And he asked him not only to be on the team, but to help instruct the inexperienced crew.
Carl would fence with the men to help them learn the ropes. But, on the women’s team, there was only one who would fence with him: the diminutive, 4-foot-10-inch Mickey Mikkelsen. And that’s how their relationship started. A Staten Islander, Mickey lived at home while attending Wagner, and Carl spent lots of time at her family’s house on Cornell Avenue, with Mickey, her brother, and her mother. Her father was usually away because of his job as a tugboat captain. After two years, Carl and Mickey were captains of the men’s and women’s fencing teams, respectively. They were an item on and off the piste.
Then, Carl says, something unexpected happened. Carl was a history major, and the department chair called him into his office and told him that all three professors in the department agreed: They had taught him everything they could. They encouraged him to transfer to another college, where he could “broaden his horizons.” At the same time, Carl’s father was moving to Washington, D.C., to work for the U.S. Government Printing Office as World War II heated up. Carl moved with his family. With the help of the U.S. State Department, he says, he was admitted to American University, and earned a degree in public administration in one packed year of coursework. His father had also rented a boarding house, and there Carl met a gorgeous woman, Anita Haskell, who was a typing whiz working for the War Department. She heard him hunting and pecking and volunteered to type his assignments. She typed 90 words per minute. He was blown away.
The last time Carl saw Mickey was in September 1942. He had finished his degree at American University. Because of “flat feet” and poor eyesight, the navy and air force programs he wanted to enlist in wouldn’t have him, so he was waiting for his draft number to come up. The beautiful Anita suggested he travel with her to Maine to meet her family. Along the way, he told her about Mickey. While she visited with her stepsister in Trenton, New Jersey, she told Carl to go to Staten Island, see Mickey, and make sure he was making the right decision. She told him that if he still wanted to go to Maine with her, she’d be on the 11 o’clock train the next day.
So, Carl did as Anita suggested. “I met Mickey and we talked,” Carl recalls. “I had a heck of a time that night. I stayed in the boys’ dorm; there was always an extra bed somewhere. But I didn’t sleep at all.” Finally, he decided to leave the decision up to Anita, essentially. “She might not go on that train. But if she wants to be with me, she’ll be on that train,” he reasoned. He’ll never forget standing on the platform when the train pulled into the station. He was at the very front of the train, and he saw her get out between the first and second cars and look toward the back of the train. Then, she turned around, saw him, and ran into his arms.
Carl married Anita on April 22, 1944. After his military discharge, they moved to Maine, where he taught school in several locations, worked for the University of Maine, and finally became a school superintendent. Carl and Anita had three daughters. He retired in 1977 and built a home in Marshfield. In 2000, Anita contracted Alzheimer’s. She died on April 4, 2008.
Now comes the time of second chances. The time where “what might have been” becomes “what might be again.”
Carl had stayed in touch with Wagner College through the years. He gave to the Annual Fund; he read the class newsletter. And in 2000, he had read a note from Mickey, “It doesn’t seem possible that Del has been gone for three years.”
Mickey had also had a full life in the intervening years. Soon after Carl met Anita at the train, Mickey met Eugene Delmar “Del” Aldrich at a USO in Staten Island. They were married on May 19, 1945, and moved to Rapid City, South Dakota. A biology and chemistry major, Mickey worked as a lab tech at two hospitals, retiring in 1986. She also had a son and a daughter. She and Del were among those who founded St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Rapid City. Sadly, she lost Del in 1997, but she continued to travel, golf, line dance, and participate in many community organizations well into her 80s.
Meantime, Carl says, “My children were after me. ‘You’re living alone. We’re worried about you.’” In January 2010, soon after his 88th birthday, and 67 years since he had last spoken to Mickey, he wrote her a letter, after obtaining her address from the Wagner class newsletter editor. He says he put no return address on it. After all, who knows how Mickey would feel about seeing a letter from him, under the circumstances of 67 years ago.
“Before I leave this world,” he began, adding in parentheses that his doctors were mighty impressed with his vitality at that age, “I wanted to say that I have never forgotten you.” He wrote to her his memories of their first date, at a movie theater in St. George, Staten Island.
He waited two weeks. No answer. He could understand why. He had practically jilted her, after all. He put the matter aside.
Two more weeks passed, and he found a letter from Mickey in his mailbox. He wrote her back immediately. “I call it our ‘postal relationship,’” he says. Things proceeded swiftly. She came out for a visit. “In the middle of the fifth [letter], I said, ‘Heck, marry me,’” says Carl. Again, a long wait, followed by a brief answer: “Yes. All my love, Mickey.” Carl and Mickey were married at her church, St. Andrew’s in Rapid City, on April 25, 2010. They moved to Carl’s house in Marshfield, but planned to divide the year between Maine and South Dakota, where Mickey also had a lovely home.
But, in September 2010, Mickey suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered. According to her obituary, “On Nov. 15, 2012, after a valiant battle against unknown adversaries Bernice ‘Mickey’ Aldrich Heilsberg admitted defeat with the dignity and grace that marked her life.
“She passed from this world to a better place where she will once again glow with health and meet those loved ones that have passed before her, leaving behind many that will remember with love and fondness the spirit of ‘little Mickey.’”
An unforgettable spirit, indeed.
— Laura Barlament, Editor, Wagner Magazine
June 25, 2013