Ham Lake couple died as they lived

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 12, 2011 - 9:28 PM

The 93-year-olds, found dead after a fire at their home, were known for doing everything together for decades.


Jesse and Deborah Wood, family friends of the Ehrnreiters, watched as remains were removed from the house on Saturday.

Photo: Jules Ameel, Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

After seven decades together, Walter and Helen Ehrnreiter had become so intertwined that they seemed to function as a single entity.

"They were a perfect team," said Maryann Egan, a church friend of the couple. "She was the legs, and he was the mind. She was healthy, but was starting to lose touch with words; he was sharp, but was having trouble getting around. They were exact opposites, which made them the perfect couple for each other."

The bodies of the Ehrnreiters, both 93, were found about 10:30 p.m. Friday in the charred remains of their Ham Lake home after a fast-moving fire was reported a couple of hours earlier. Neighbors and friends who provided the couple's identity said Saturday that they were shocked by the news of Walter and Helen's deaths, but not that they died together.

"They died the way they lived -- together," said Dave Egan, who, like his wife, knew them as fellow members of the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake.

A passerby reported a fire in their home at 3551 Crosstown Blvd. NE. at about 8:30 p.m. Friday, about 2 1/2 hours after a family friend had stopped by to see the couple and found everything was fine, Lt. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County Sheriff's Office said Saturday afternoon at a news conference in Andover.

Their bodies were found after the fire was contained, he said. One victim was found in the living room, the other in a bedroom. Positive identification is pending, but Sommer said there is no reason to believe that the victims weren't the homeowners.

The cause of the fire has not been determined, but one possibility is that it began in the area of a wood-burning steel insert in a brick fireplace, Sommer said. Authorities said that hot spots in the ruins prevented investigators from beginning their work until noon Saturday, but foul play is not suspected.

A welcoming couple

Deborah Wood, who brought a cross on a necklace to hang on the Ehrnreiters' mailbox, blinked back tears as authorities removed the bodies shortly after noon on Saturday. Her father and Walter Ehrnreiter were longtime friends, she said, and when her father died seven years ago, she and her son, Jesse, 17, started making regular visits to maintain the family connection.

"I'm just heartbroken," she said. "I can't believe it. I'm in shock; I don't know what to do."

She said that the couple exuded warmth. "When we came to the door, Walter would say, 'Come in, come in, come in,'" she recalled. "You knew that you were always welcome in their house."

Jesse Wood said that even though more than 75 years separated them, Walter Ehrnreiter treated him like a friend.

"The first time I went there, we just sat down and started talking," he said. Asked what they talked about, he replied: "Everything and anything. I told him that I was in a bowling league, and he started telling me about what the bowling alleys were like when he was my age. And then we discovered that we both like to fish. He had a lot of fishing stories."

The Egans had known the Ehrnreiters through their church for 25 years. Even though Walter gave up his driver's license two years ago, Walter and Helen rarely missed Sunday morning services, they said.

"If you went to the 10:30 mass, they were always there," Dave Egan said. "You had to give Walter a little help to get to the car -- give him an arm to hang on to -- but he loved to joke. He had a great sense of humor."

Maryann Egan said that even though he was slowing down physically, he wasn't about to call it quits. "He had just gotten a bicycle," she said, "and he was bound and determined that he was going to get up on that thing."

The Egans said that the couple told them that they met while Walter was serving in the Navy during World War II. Walter, who was from St. Paul, befriended a Canadian sailor who introduced him to his sister, Helen, who lived in Newfoundland.

Their home in Ham Lake, a farmhouse built in 1890, was something of a compromise, Maryann Egan said. "Helen said she wanted to live there because there were blueberries on the property," she said. "Walter wanted to live in St. Paul, but ..."

The Egans said the couple had two children whose whereabouts the Egans did not know. Neither they nor Cook knew whether they had grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

Dave Egan said the Ehrnreiters had become so dependent on one another that church members had started "to wonder what would happen when one of them died -- what would the other one do?"

He shook his head sadly before adding, "As hard as this is to take, in a way, at least, it answers that question."

Staff writer Jim Adams contributed to this report. Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters