During the middle of her seventh grade year in 1930, Berneice Witmer was forced to transfer when her school in Grabill closed. She felt a little trepidation when she walked into her new classroom at Leo.
“I figured I'd just sit in the back row,” she said. “But when I sat down, a girl comes up and says, 'That's my seat. Get out!'”
Forced to move, she was anxiously looking around for a new seat when another girl said, “'Come and sit by me and I'll take care of you.' She stepped up when I was desperate.”
And Berniece Conrad did take care of Witmer in the start of a friendship that has lasted 88 years. Now, the two mark another memory as the friends celebrate their 100th birthdays this month.
Today, Witmer – now Berneice Zimmerman – celebrates her 100th birthday, and Oct. 18, Conrad – now Berniece Getz – will celebrate her 100th.
“She's a few days older than I am, so she has beaten me to the race, and I don't like that,” Getz said with a big laugh. “I'd rather be first, but that's me.”
Hearing that, Zimmerman just chuckles as she grabs Getz's hand. They plan on attending each other's parties, and no, they don't care too much for gifts.
“I don't need anything,” Getz said. “I tell people who want to buy me gifts, if I can't wear it or eat it, I don't need it.”
She also doesn't care to write many thank you notes, her daughter-in-law joked.
Besides spelling their first names differently, there's more to the story than a pair of milestone birthdays and a long friendship.
After graduating from Leo High School in 1936 with their 32 classmates, Getz started teaching, moving to Fort Wayne at age 20. She taught for 44 years, including 30 at Price Elementary, where she had the same classroom for 27 years.
She was married to Louis, a salesman, for two days short of 20 years, when he passed away from a heart attack. They are parents of two sons and have three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Zimmerman also became a teacher, moving to Flanagan, Illinois, to work at an orphanage. She later taught at a two-room schoolhouse and married Loren Zimmerman, an electrical contractor, who passed away in 2002. During almost 61 years of marriage, they built a family of a son and two daughters, six grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, with one more on the way.
Because they lived in different states, the friends continued their relationship mostly through Christmas letters and high school reunions. Eventually, Zimmerman's daughter, Joan Pauley, moved to Fort Wayne and married a local man. Whenever her mother would come to visit, Berneice would arrange to see Berniece.
While Getz was a lifelong resident of Fort Wayne, Zimmerman lived alone in Illinois from 2002 until July 2017, when Pauley brought her home to Fort Wayne at age 98. One of the first things Zimmerman asked was whether Getz was still around.
“Somehow,” Zimmerman said, “I didn't think she was gone.”
Except Pauley couldn't find her, despite looking online, in church directories and through obituaries. She also didn't know the name of Getz's children, so she was stumped.
At one point, Getz had written down the phone numbers for Pauley and Zimmerman but had lost the little address book.
“I was going through some things, and after 100 years you have a lot of things to go through,” Getz said. “I was cleaning out some things, and there it was.”
Since Zimmerman's number was out of order, she tried calling Pauley, who at that moment just happened to be visiting her mother at Kingston Residence on Bluffton Road.
“(Pauley) said, 'I've been looking all over for you!'” Getz said with a laugh. “I wasn't sure if my friend was still around. I was leery, but as long as you have life, you have hope.”
The reunion took place April 6 at Don Hall's restaurant on Bluffton Road, where they charmed the entire restaurant and had their lunches bought by an intrigued gentleman. It had been nine years since they'd communicated or seen each other in person.
“It was like we hadn't been gone and it clicked again,” Getz said.
“It wasn't hard,” Zimmerman said. “She was on my mind all those years.”
They prove that real friendships last. Besides growing up together, both are women of strong faith who thank God for a new day every morning and realize how blessed they are.
Asked what she looks forward to each day, Zimmerman said her three friends at the lunch table, maybe a letter that comes and a smile from somebody. Getz answered pretty things like flowers, clouds and trees and other things that are nice, even people. Both also try to provide strong examples for the Lord.
“I want to be a blessing to those I meet and point them in the right direction to find peace with God,” Zimmerman said.
The thing about being 99, Getz said, is that there's not much peer pressure.
Getz said she is thankful she stepped up for Zimmerman, who was desperate to find a friend that day in 1930.
“I wish everybody could have a friendship like she and I have had,” Getz said. “They miss something, and it didn't cost that much. It's something you cannot buy. It has to be appreciated and developed.”