By Kelly Lafferty
---- — Rita’s first glimpse of Ralph Harbaugh was from around the corners inside Hank’s Supermarket in 1959.
Ralph worked as a bagger in the store, and anytime Rita’s family went there she peeked around to see if he was there, too.
“I thought, oh he is so cute,” Rita said. “I wonder who he is?”
She asked her friend, who was also Ralph’s co-worker, about the tall, thin, curly-haired guy with the beautiful eyes. He said Ralph was a nice guy and was a junior at Kokomo High School, where Rita was a sophomore.
She couldn’t believe she had never noticed him before.
The next day at school, while Rita was hanging out with her friends in the Kokomo High School auditorium after lunch, her friend approached her, Ralph in tow.
“He said, ‘Hey Rita, here’s this guy you wanted to meet,’” Rita said. “I must’ve turned three shades of red. I thought, ‘Oh, he’s even cuter up close.’”
When Rita found out what a nice guy Ralph was, it made him even more attractive. Before heading back to class, Ralph gave her a stick of gum. Rita kept that one piece of gum in her diary for years.
“I met Ralph today and he gave me a piece of gum,” she remembers writing in her diary entry.
Ralph didn’t notice that Rita was shy or embarrassed to meet him. He was a pretty shy guy himself.
“I thought she was awfully cute,” Ralph said.
Not long after their initial meeting, Ralph asked her out and they went on a double date to a dinner and a speaker at the YWCA .
It was their first date, and that night, they shared their first kiss. It was something Rita would never forget.
“He had me at the first kiss,” she said. “I didn’t know if he liked me because he was so quiet, but I guess he did because when he kissed me I thought ‘Oh alright!’ I’d never been kissed like that. I was enamored. I really fell for him.”
They started going steady then. They exchanged love notes at their lockers and spent four years dating. Before Ralph graduated high school, they went on dates to drive-in movies, and drive-in restaurants.
“We just wanted to be together,” Ralph said. “It didn’t matter where we were.”
He knew almost immediately that he wanted to marry Rita.
“I knew that she was the one,” he said. “She was really pretty, and she was always helping people. And that hasn’t changed.”
Ralph asked her to marry him several times, but he never got a definite yes from Rita.
“I wasn’t ready for that yet,” Rita said. “To commit your life to somebody, that’s a big step. I knew I was crazy about him, but I had to know it was what the Lord wanted me to do. When the Lord tells me, I’ll know.”
When Ralph left for six weeks for basic training at Fort Knox after he graduated from high school, Rita knew she was ready to marry him.
“I missed him so badly, and he missed me,” Rita said.
She took a bus from Kokomo to Fort Knox to surprise him. She had never traveled anywhere by herself before, and by the time she arrived in Indianapolis it was 1 a.m. She rode all night and saw the sun come up before she arrived at the base in Kentucky.
“I was scared to death,” she said. “I was a little country girl from Kokomo. It took every bit of courage I had.”
Once she arrived, there was another issue. There were thousands of soldiers there and Rita had no idea how she would ever find Ralph, especially since he didn’t know she was coming. She found a sergeant who tracked down Ralph as Rita waited in another room to surprise him.
She could hear Ralph’s voice in the other room saying, “Yes sergeant! Yes sergeant!” Ralph thought he was in trouble when the sergeant sent him to the room Rita was waiting in.
“He walked in the room and there I was,” Rita said. “We cried and we hugged.”
Ralph couldn’t believe his eyes. He had really missed Rita while he was at training, and there she was standing in front of him.
“That was really surprising,” Ralph said. “She had never done anything like that. It meant quite a bit.”
As they took a walk around the base, Rita told him she was sure she wanted to get married.
“I realized how much I missed him, and I never wanted to be without him ever again,” she said. “It was good we waited to get married. We needed time to grow up a little and mature. And it was good to spend a little time apart. It was painful, but it was good. If you miss each other so badly, you know you want to be together.”
While Ralph was back in Kokomo for a few weeks after training and before he was sent for four months to El Paso, Tex. for the Army, he gave Rita a ring.
“At least when he went to Texas, I had a ring on my finger and we were committed,” Rita said. “But it was still very hard. It was a long four months.”
Almost a year later, Ralph and Rita were married on April 20, 1963, at First Baptist Church in Kokomo when she was 20 and he was 21.
There were trying times at the beginning of their relationship. Rita, who worked and retired from Delco, was on the day shift, and Ralph, who was working at the Kokomo Spring Company before he got into the insurance business, was on the afternoon shift.
“That was not good for newlyweds,” Rita said. “We just weren’t seeing each other. He was unhappy and I was unhappy.”
Once she got her schedule changed to match his, things got a lot better. They grew a lot closer.
“We just learned to cling together and hold onto the Lord,” Rita said. “That’s what gets you through the hard times, and you’re going to have hard times.”
That’s what they’re doing these days, fifty years later, after Ralph was diagnosed with a health condition. It’s hard right now, but the Harbaugh’s are sticking together and they’re confident they’ll get through it, with the support of their three kids and four grandkids.
“Ralph is my life and I think I’m his,” Rita said. “That’s the kind of guy you want. Someone who loves you more than they love themselves. Someone who puts your interests above their own.”
They say that even though they have their own interests, once they got married, they were united as one.
“You never try to change the other person,” Ralph said. “If you get married thinking you’re going to try to change the other person, it won’t work.”
As for Ralph and Rita, they believe that opposites attract. Rita considers herself the talkative one and Ralph thinks of himself as more reserved.
They’ve made it work for the past half a century, and their relationship has only gotten stronger because of it.
“When you get married, you’re so in love,” Rita said. “It’s all-consuming. When you get older, you love each other in a deeper way. We're very blessed. We have everything we could've ever hoped for."