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Friends for life

A friendship that began 70 years ago in a hospital nursery

Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

(Published April 19, 2007, 3:52 p.m.)

Lots of people look at their friend and say, “We’ve been friends forever.” But how many can say it and have it be true? Sandy Behm and Edna Gauger are two who can.

They met, so to speak, while lying next to each other in the nursery of the Walworth County Hospital in 1937. Their mothers shared a room for six days in what is now the Aurora Lakeland Medical Center in Elkhorn.

“We started our friendship in the nursery,” Gauger teased.

“Women stayed in the hospital for 10 days at that time,” Behm added. “We were there for six days together.”

This makes this week a celebration of 70 years of best-friendship.

“But she’s four days older than me,” Behm quickly adds with a smirk on her face.

“I was born April 23, 1937,” Gauger—then Shepard—says.

“I was born April 27, 1937,” Behm—then Scott—finishes.

In what quickly became an obvious sign of their connection, having a conversation with these friends for life is like watching tennis—it goes back and forth as one friend’s words start a thought and the other’s finish it.

“You get to know someone so well,” Gauger begins.

“That you know what the other one is going to say,” Behm completes, both breaking into laughter.

Friendships between women are special. We know each other’s thoughts; who broke our hearts and who we were better off without; and the whole stories behind the shortened versions we tell at class reunions.

Our long-term girl friendships make us feel better, understood, supported and needed when nobody else in the world can.

After leaving the hospital, Gauger and Behm grew up on either sides of a Delavan city park and sustained their best friendship through their preschool, school and adult years.

As they reminisce about their many years together, they look over old photos and yearbooks.

“There’s one of our junior prom,” Behm says pointing to a black-and-white photo of several couples having dinner.

“I was engaged to that guy, but I never married him,” Gauger adds while she and Behm giggle together.

“That was 1954,” Behm finishes.

“We had a picnic that day, didn’t we?” Gauger asks, pointing to another photo of several teenaged girls at a park.

“Yes, that was a fun day,” Behm returns.

As they go through one of their yearbooks from Delavan-Darien High School, more memories surface.

“I got all girls to fill all four student government positions,” Behm begins a new round.

“Oh yeah,” Gauger returns. “I was a treasurer—because nobody else wanted it. She was always talking me into things.”

“And I worked in the library,” Behm says. “You did too.”

“No I didn’t, but I remember you working there,” Gauger says as she flips through the pages to find her picture, where it was listed that indeed she did work in the library too.

Another bout of laughter erupts from the best friends.

“We were nuts,” Behm said. “We were always together.”

“We went to basketball games and football games,” Gauger adds. “We always ended up together.”

“There was a group of us and we called ourselves the Twelve Acorns,” Behm says. “On Fridays we wore blue jeans and white men’s shirts—we couldn’t wear blue jeans then, so people had a fit.”

When asked why they called themselves the Twelve Acorns, they answer together, laughing again at the memory.

“Because we were all nuts.”

“When we turned 18 we all went up to the Kitty Cat Tavern because it was legal,” Behm begins another story. “We ordered a beer then we all sat there ...”

“Looking at it,” Gauger continues her thought-again.

“Then we got up and walked out,” Behm finishes for both of them. “We said, ‘There, we did it.’”

“We did it,” Gauger adds, both laughing hard at their foolishness.

The story of the Kitty Cat Tavern sparks another memory in Gauger, but as soon as it came, it was gone.

“Oh darn, I lost it,” she said.

“Let me see, what were you thinking,” Behm teases as she holds her fingers to her temples and closes her eyes. Another bought of laughter erupts between the best friends.

As the school years passed, adulthood took over their time—husbands, children, jobs. The best friends saw less of each other, but the bond remained.

Gauger married Lee and has two sons and nine grandchildren. Behm married Bill and has four children, three stepchildren, 22 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Naturally with a friendship of this longevity, not all of their memories evoke girl-like laughter. Behm had six children, but over the years she lost two daughters. The day Behm lost her first daughter is still etched vividly in both of their memories.

“I lost my first daughter at 2-1/2,” Behm begins.

“I got there so fast,” Gauger continues.

“Her mother-in-law lived across the street,” Behm explains.

“She called me up and said, ‘Sandy’s house is on fire,’” Gauger adds. “I dropped the phone and flew over there. It was so sad.”

“It was 1:30 in the afternoon,” Behm’s remembers. “I had just had her picture taken at 10:30 that morning. Three hours later she was gone.”

“I was there in minutes,” Gauger finishes. “And after they cleaned out the house they left just a little bit of the burned wood and Sandy could always smell it.”

“I could,” Behm nods in agreement. “I’ll bet I could walk into that house today and smell it.”

No matter what was happening, how busy they were or long it had been since they last spoke, both women always knew their best friend was always there.

“I don’t think we knew how rare it was for us to be friends our whole lives until we got older,” Behm said.

“Over the years I always knew she was there and she always knew I was here,” Gauger finishes with both friends nodding in agreement again.

“She even moved to California for a while, but when something happens we know we’re there,” Behm begins a new train of thought.

“She had a bad thing happen to her husband, and when she got home from the hospital at 11 o’clock at night she called me.”

“That’s what we do,” Gauger takes over. “In the middle of the night if something’s wrong, we’ll call each other.”

“And we know that,” Behm continues. “We’ve always been there for each other. What is really cool is how many people can you call in the middle of the night and say, ‘Hey I need you,’ and they’re there?”

“And you know that it’s OK,” Gauger adds. “I always know I can call her anytime and say, ‘Hey Sandy, I need you.’”

Study after study has shown that women’s long-term friendships are something very special.

In fact, women with close friends live better, according to a Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School. They found that these women are less likely to develop physical impairments as they age and are more likely to lead a joyful life.

In another study performed at Manchester University in the United Kingdom over a 10-year period, researchers concluded that women use their friendships to form their very identities.

“Friendships between women ... are much deeper and more moral,” according to Dr. Gindo Tampubolon, “Women’s views of friendship have to do with how they express themselves and form their identity.”

Behm and Gauger’s account of their best friendship reflect these findings.

“She knows what goes on inside of me and I don’t even have to say anything,” Gauger’s begins.

“She knows me better than my own husband does,” Behm adds.

“And she knows more about me than my husband does,” Gauger finishes, both laughing again.

The best friends haven’t made big plans to celebrate their 70 years of friendship—they celebrate their friendship every day that they’re there for each other.

“Or maybe we could go on the Wheel of Fortune,” Behm thinks aloud.

“Oh no. I’m not going on the Wheel of Fortune,” Gauger quickly returns. “She’s always talking me into things.”

“We could win some money,” Behm’s voice takes on a persuasive tone.

“All right,” Gauger concedes, laughing. “See what I mean?”



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