Forty years of love for Dale and Juli Wirtjes started at the University of Iowa
The Wirtjes met at a University of Iowa business fraternity social. Forty years later, the two have three kids, six grandchildren, and a household full of photographs documenting their life together.
February 13, 2022
The bar basement at a business fraternity social was the last place Dale Wirtjes expected to meet his future wife.
Dale attended the University of Iowa chapter of Alpha Kappa Psi’s “smoker” and social on Feb. 3, 1982, the type of event he typically never went to. While making small talk with current members, two upperclassmen girls were showing their new roommate, Juli, around the gathering.
And then, Juli pointed at Dale.
“How about that guy over there?” she asked.
Forty years later, Dale and Juli Wirtjes sat in the basement of the same bar — present-day St. Burch Tavern on Iowa Avenue — in the dimly lit den next to the restaurant’s icon “THE DEN” neon red sign, enjoying dinner and cocktails, celebrating the anniversary of the first time they met.
To prepare for dinner, Dale went to extreme lengths, beginning in June 2021, to find a memento from that fraternity meeting in 1982, which took form in a clipping from a 1982 edition of The Daily Iowan.
On the afternoon of Feb. 3, he presented her with the ad, and said he wanted to take her on a “trip down memory lane.”
The music playing on the speakers on Feb. 3 was typical 2022 electronica bar music with soft jazz music, at times changing the mood from excited to soulful. In 1982, songs such as “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson and “Flashdance…What a Feeling” by Irene Cara would have emitted from the speakers.
Juli said that, despite some of the obvious differences, being in the same spot was surreal — as if barely any time had passed at all.
“It feels like five years,” she said. “You find out as you get older that your life just goes faster and faster… I’m 26 still.”
“She got my attention”
After talking to Juli that night long ago, Dale said he did not think much of it, as he believed she was a freshman and not his own age.
“We talked for a while, and she was — she got my attention, let’s put it that way,” Dale said. “And it seemed odd to me that she was interested in talking to me as much as we did that night.”
One of the fraternity’s traditions, to this day, is for new pledges to choose a “pledge parent” — a student in the fraternity who teaches new members the fraternity’s rules and mottos. Typically, Dale said, women would choose a pledge mother. That was not the case for Juli.
Juli’s friends were astounded that she wanted Dale for her pledge parent, but she said she chose him because he was nice and easy to talk to. Dale said he gladly accepted once she asked.
While reminiscing their relationship’s early days, Dale realized he was pretty “slow on the uptake,” as Valentine’s Day passed 10 days after their meeting and he did not “seize a golden opportunity.”
“I don’t think her interest in me had really occurred to me yet,” he said. “I was in disbelief that this terrific woman would take an interest in me.”
Even when there wasn’t a reason for the two to get together, Dale said he started to find reasons to go over to Juli’s apartment. He had a friend in her same apartment complex, and he decided one day to introduce them, even though they were on opposite ends of the building and had no reason to interact.
“And then I don’t know if she invited me, or if I showed up one evening. I think she invited me to come over one evening, and we hung out all evening there, and a romance was born,” Dale said.
Over the course of their time together at the UI, the couple would go to dinner at The Mill, the Brown Bottle, and Bushnell’s Turtle. Dale remembered walking under the lamplights in the Pedestrian Mall together to visit different bars and enjoy Iowa City’s nightlife.
Timeline by Meg Doster/The Daily Iowan
They would see movies at the Old Capitol Mall’s theater. Dale never said no to a movie Juli wanted to see, despite her favorite genres — chick-flicks and romance — not matching his own favorites.
He remembers plopping down into the theater’s plush, red seats almost every week to watch the top box office movies — at the time “Flashdance” and “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
Juli said her fondest moments of college were something minuscule — spending days with Dale in the Health Sciences Library.
Dale would tutor her in math and art, she said, but mostly algebra, causing some moments of extreme frustration for him.
“I think he threw a book at me once, because I kept asking him to explain why x equals three,” she said laughing and looking over at him.
“It wasn’t airborne!” Dale responded.
Eventually, it came time for Dale to graduate in May 1982. However, after meeting Juli and establishing a relationship, he decided to stay in college for one more year for her.
While their love story is unique, a study conducted by Facebook in 2013 showed that 28 percent of married graduates met their spouse in college.
He added that after meeting a woman he really liked, he never regretted spending another year at the UI.
“I could enjoy [college] a little differently and especially with her in my life,” he said. “I could really enjoy that last year of college as a year of college with not as many stresses, and also the euphoria that goes with a new relationship.”
“A lifetime home run”
Juli and Dale have a set routine that Juli says she “drags him through” every morning, starting with making the bed and working out in their basement, and ending with making dinner together — she cooks, he cleans.
“We always make the bed,” Juli said, holding the family dog, Trixie, in her lap.
Dale said Juli was able to make instant judgments on things, and “99 percent of the time, she is dead on, and is to this day.”
“I could tell early on she knew what she wanted, was decisive, and I found that really attractive,” Dale said, recollecting his early memories of Juli. “Because, frankly, I was more the indecisive one. It was kinda an opposites attract kind of thing.”
Juli said she is very much the optimistic type, and that has not changed as she has gotten older.
“With everything I do, I jump in with both feet,” Juli said. “I’m excited. I say, ‘Let’s go for it,’ and I’m ready.”
That mentality helped Dale realize the moment that Juli was the one he was going to marry, when she told him she loved him during a weekend visiting his parents in Buffalo Center, Iowa.
Her decisiveness and his ability to mull things over allowed them to balance each other well, he said.
When it neared time for Dale to start looking for post-graduation jobs, Juli said she asked him what was going to happen with them if he decided to move.
“I think my threat, at one point, I said, ‘If you go somewhere else, and there’s no commitment here, then there is no commitment here. I’m going to go do my thing,’” Juli said. “I don’t wait around.”
Juli had been in some previous relationships with ups and downs, and knew that she never wanted to go back to that again.
“I became very independent after that, and, I mean, I had no problem going and doing my thing, but I’m not playing the game,” she said. “We’re together, or we’re not, and that’s what it’s gonna be.”
Dale said after that, he saw the writing on the wall, and it was “thick and black.”
After missing Valentine’s Day the year before, Dale made sure to make up for it the next year. On Feb. 14, 1983, he presented her with roses and breakfast in bed, and proposed with a heart-shaped ring. Juli sadly doesn’t have that ring anymore, as it used to catch on everything and scratch their kids.
The wedding was planned for April 1984, but the couple eventually moved it up to Sept. 17, 1983.
“The vision was so clear, yet I was in denial. It was the difference between someone who had previous relationships, and I had not really had any,” Dale said, grabbing Juli’s hand at the table next to an empty martini glass. “So, what turned out to be my first serious relationship is a lifetime home run.”
Returning to the UI
Despite going to school for business, Juli soon realized that her future was in education. After teaching in elementary schools in Linn-Mar Community School District in Marion, Iowa, for 33 years, Juli decided to retire and return to the UI to teach students in the College of Education as an adjunct supervisor.
Her typical work day, since COVID-19 forced many schools online, is Zooming into her students’ classrooms, advising on English and math.
Dale and Juli’s youngest daughter, Holly Caldwell, 30, said her mom loved teaching, but it got draining after a while.
“She ended up retiring a little bit earlier than she had intended to,” Holly said. “So, I think she knew, even when she did retire, that she wasn’t gonna retire from everything, that she would still do something, because like I said, she’s such a go-getter that, you know, she’ll always have something that she’s doing.”
Map by Molly Milder/The Daily Iowan
Gary Gabel, a UI elementary English and math coordinator and Juli’s supervisor, said her dedication to teaching is inspiring.
He added that she is always willing to take an extra step to lend support to her students or to Gabel.
“She built a good sense of community with her students,” Gabel said. “That's kind of what I've seen, you know, and what I hear from students, is how she advocates for them, and how she's just accessible and available all the time.”
Over her 33 years of teaching elementary students, Juli said she’s had 25 practicum students in her classroom, and now being able to teach those students is her “dream job.”
“I’ve learned as much from them as they did from me,” she said. “They bring new ideas and all kinds of cool things to do…so I always knew I was looking at a job like this for several years before I retired.”
Making family a priority
A large family photo hangs in the entryway of Dale and Juli’s home in Cedar Rapids. Several photo albums fill the book shelves, stocked cover to cover with photos of their children and grandchildren.
Two days before Valentine’s Day, the couple smiled as two of their grandchildren, Landyn and Lauryn, sat in the leather chair opposite them, presenting their “Mimi” and “Bumpa” with colored drawings. Just that morning, Juli said, almost all of the grandchildren were over at the house — a typical family gathering.
Their three children, Holly, Melissa “Mel” Mitchell, 35, and Robert “Rob” Wirtjes, 32, said their parents continue to be as supportive and involved as they were when they were kids.
“I think that they always sort of didn’t like that, like they wish they had the big family and that they wish they were closer with their siblings who were older and far away,” Holly said. “I just think they grew up one way and were like, ‘No, we don’t want it to be like that. We want us all to be close.’”
Holly said her parents opted to spend time with them versus having alone time, which showed her how strong a relationship they had.
Friday nights with pizza and a rented movie stood out in her memory.
“My parents didn’t go out on a date, they spent time with us. And I just, that’s really important to me and like something I want to do with my family, too,” she said. “My parents just made us a priority, and maybe made their relationship less of a priority, because they went on trips with us and went out with us.”
All three children added that road trips with their parents were some of the best memories they had. They traveled to Disney World and Disneyland, North Carolina, the Gulf Coast of Florida, among many others.
Mel said her parents set the bar high for a relationship and defined for herself and her mom what love actually is.
“My dad has always been like, ‘Let me help you, let me take care of you,’” said Mel, who is the eldest daughter and has two children of her own. “[He] drops everything to go above and beyond to help people, that I expect everyone to be that way.”
Rob said he can always go to his parents for advice, especially his dad.
“My dad is probably the best person to bounce things off of, or to talk to, about life things, if it be financial or health-related, or job-related, he’s one of the best people I have in my camp to talk to, just to figure out life,” he said. “I don’t know that every person my age has that built in with one of their parents.”
Mel said with a lot of her friends having divorced parents, it is amazing to her that after 40 years, her parents are still happily married.
Living only 10 minutes away from her parents, Mel said they are very involved with their grandchildren, whether it be giving rides to and from school or teaching Landyn, her eldest, how to play piano.
Her parents’ opposite personalities have transferred over to how Mel views obstacles in her life. While her dad provided empathy and sympathy, her mom, always a go-getter, she said, would tell her to take a few minutes or a day to cry, and then be done and do something about it.
“You gotta get up and go and like, choose to be a happy person, and choose to have a good day, it’s all within your control and it’s all mindset,” Mel said. “I think I’ve picked up from them like the dos and don’ts of a relationship.”
Dale said looking back, their marriage has all been about following their promises to each other.
“It’s kinda like the vows: “Love is patient, love is kind,’” he said, smiling at her. “We really did live our wedding vows.”