Timing is everything. And for Rita Miskimen and Vernon Braun, it took more than half a century for their life together to fall into place. On Saturday, Miskimen, 85, and Braun, 89, said "I do" in a noon ceremony at St. Rose of Lima Church in Roseville.

There was barely a dry eye in the small crowd of friends and family who watched the pre-World War II sweethearts marry 68 years after their first date. She wore a cross he made from the windshield of a downed German plane. He held her hand as if he'd been waiting for this moment his entire life.

The pair can't remember exactly how they met. It was a long time ago, after all. But both agree it was the summer of 1940, probably at a 4-H event in Doyle, a small railroad town in southern Minnesota that's no longer there.

She was 18; he was 22. Their "country courtship," as Rita calls it-- walks down long, dusty driveways and a movie or two -- was cut short by World War II. The two wrote letters during the 51 months Vernon spent overseas.

He carried her notes as well as a lock of her red hair from Salerno, Italy, all the way to the Alps.

One of Vernon's letters asked to make the relationship "more permanent and have me visit his jeweler uncle," Rita recalled. But she was working on an air base in Dayton, Ohio, and said no when Vernon popped the question. "I wasn't ready to get married, so we went our separate ways," she said.

He was heartbroken, "but that's the way it was," he said.

Going their separate ways

In 1946, Vernon married Irma, a neighbor who was smitten with the black-haired, blue-eyed veteran; Rita met her husband, Jim, a physicist and Air Force man, on her one and only blind date. Vernon bought a farm south of the Twin Cities near Montgomery, Minn., and fathered a daughter and a son; Rita raised four daughters in Dayton.

"And I forgot all about him," she said. Vernon didn't say the same.

Decades passed. Both lived full, separate lives, with the keepsakes of their young romance stuffed away. Rita's daughters would occasionally come across Vernon's picture when rummaging through a box of aging photos. Vernon stored the wartime bundle of letters, photos and Rita's red tendril in a trunk.

It wasn't until after his wife passed away in 2001 that Vernon held that wisp of hair once again.

I want to find Rita, Linda Pollari recalls her father saying. With some sleuthing, Pollari, of Roseville, found Rita's phone number on the Internet and left a message.

Rita's husband, Jim, gave her the go-ahead to rekindle her friendship with Vernon as platonic pen pals. When Jim passed away in 2004, Rita moved back to Minnesota to be near family members.

The envy of all her friends

Vernon decided that this time, he wouldn't take no for an answer.

He came to Roseville to visit her regularly, bearing dozens of roses, thoughtful trinkets and greeting cards. Rita became the envy of her senior apartment complex, many of whom are widows longing for a companion.

"I said at Thanksgiving [2006] what my dream of the rest of my life was," Vernon said. Will you marry me? he asked.

She said no. "[Marriage is] not something you think about when you are over 80 years old," she said.

But he persisted, giving her a cross that he had carved for her decades ago out of the windshield of a German bomber plane and a heart-shaped locket engraved with his pledge of eternal love.

"We did an awful lot of talking, and we both did an awful lot of praying, and one night I looked at my [first] husband's picture and it was just like he said, 'Rita, do it,'" she said.

She said yes in October.

They planned to spend their wedding night at the St. Paul Hotel. Then Vernon will move in with Rita. (He spent the night on New Year's Eve, but slept in the extra bedroom.)

Rita, who is keeping her last name, said she'd like to write a book about Vernon's war experiences.

He hopes she'll join him on his daily 2-mile walks. But even if she won't, he's happy as can be.

Said Vernon about his new marriage: "I think it's a good way to spend the rest of my life."

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293