December 27, 2014

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Till death, and beyond, for the Petroffs

NORTH RIDGEVILLE – Through the stillness of the Fields-Sweet Cemetery where husbands, wives and children are long buried but not forgotten, the sound of big band music breaks the silence in the area as it floats from a small, portable tape recorder sitting near a gray-haired man in a lawn chair.

Just as the trumpets and horns climb the scales, crooner Frank Sinatra can be heard singing, “Saturday Night is the loneliest night of the week.”

William Petroff listens to the tune. It was a favorite for him and his late wife, Jeanne. But lately, the tune is a musical reminder that Jeanne is gone.

“It really is,” Petroff said. “I sing that every night of the week now.”

On this particular fall day, Sinatra is playing. Some days, it’s Dean Martin or the big-band sounds of Benny Goodman.

Jeanne liked them all so that is what Petroff has decided he will play as he sits by her grave – something that has become just as much a part of his day as breathing since he lost his wife in August.

“It’s hard not to be together after 68 years,” the 91-year-old man said as he sat by the grave, shielded from the cold and rain by a big blue-and-white striped umbrella.

“I don’t care what the weather is – I haven’t missed a day,” he said. “I only live a few minutes away. I’ll keep doing this as long as the good Lord allows.”

The soft-spoken, friendly man plans his entire day around his visits, which typically come in late morning and again around 5 p.m. He usually sets up a lawn chair and an umbrella if the weather is nasty.

Music helps make the time more enjoyable.

But mostly, he just sits and talks to his wife.

“Sometimes, I get the feeling that she’s sitting next to me,” he said one day. “I didn’t know that I was 91 until she passed away.”

A lifetime of memories

Jeanne Petroff was nearly 89 when she died.

“It was mostly old age,” her husband explains. “And there was some dementia, too.”

Even death can’t stop him from proudly sharing some vintage photos of his lovely dark-haired bride, and their years together. It is painfully obviously that he is a man who simply misses the love of his life more than he can say.

The couple first met at a Cleveland roller rink three days after Christmas in 1941.

After being introduced to Jeanne by a girlfriend, Petroff said he didn’t waste any time.

“I don’t know why but I asked her for a date,” he said. “Her beauty was the first thing that ever hit me. I never got over it.”

Four days later, the couple saw a Ronald Reagan movie at Cleveland’s well-known Hippodrome Theater. Their romance progressed rapidly from that point.

“We were engaged in February and married in June,” Petroff said. “I forgot all the other women in my life. We were together seven days a week. I’d pick her up and take her home each day.”

Back then, Petroff was 21 and his new wife was a fresh 20.

The only time they were apart was during Petroff’s three years in the Army Air Force during World War II. Once he returned stateside, the couple raised a family of four boys in Cleveland before moving to North Ridgeville about 30 years ago.

They settled into a small, brick home on Lear-Nagle Road. It had three bedrooms and one bathroom.

“They were great role models, always there with each other, and always there for us,” John Petroff, 56, the couple’s youngest son, said. “When we needed to talk, they listened.”

Their life was nothing fancy, but William and Jeanne worked together to hold their family together. He worked as a New York Central Railroad mechanic and she kept the home.

“They tried not to say do it their way,” John Petroff said. “They would tell us to look at all of our options, and that it needed to be our decision. Whatever it was, they’d be with us. It was a good day-to-day atmosphere. It was a nice way to grow up.”

The couple’s oldest son, William Petroff Jr., 67, resides in Fort Wayne, Ind., while son David Petroff lives in the Akron area. The couple’s other son, Gary Petroff lives in the area.

Asked to what he attributed his parents’ long and happy life together, John said, “you could just tell they loved each other and wanted to be with each other.”

The measure of devotion

When Jeanne fell ill, Petroff said he took his wife to the hospital where doctors told him the couple wouldn’t have too much longer to be together. After the hospital came a dissatisfying week in a local nursing center after which Petroff took his wife to a North Olmsted hospice center.

“It was only for two days – thank God for that,” he said.

But somewhere between that moment and the start of his daily visits, Petroff made the decision he could not uphold his vow to part with his wife at death.

It is that level of devotion that has garnered the widower a lot of attention for those who see the elderly man on his daily trips to the cemetery.

“I just find it very touching,” said Deana Hill, a former North Ridgeville mayor and state representative who drives by the cemetery on her way home. “He sits there in the rain and the wind.”

Stopping to visit the grave of her own father one day, Hill noticed that she was not alone witnessing Petroff’s unflagging devotion.

On one particular day near where he sat, Petroff placed a handmade “thank you” sign near his wife’s grave to express his gratitude to the curious and kind-hearted folks who honk or wave, or take time to stop and chat.

“One young woman stopped and handed him a single flower,” Hill said. “She knelt down to talk with him. It makes me cry even now just to think of it.”

Some visitors give Petroff words of comfort and gifts.

Like one woman, who told him about her mutual love of Sinatra. The woman returned a short time later with a book on Sinatra, and an autographed picture.

“That was something,” Petroff said. “I wasn’t expecting that. So many people have stopped.”

Others have been the beneficiaries of Petroff’s eagerness to share his wife’s life in some small way.

One woman who took the time to stop and talk with Petroff wound up with 12 pairs of Jeanne’s shoes.

Life after death

While unmistakably different, life without Jeanne goes on for her husband.

He still lives in the couple’s home, which is filled with photos and other items that bring back a flood of memories. There are music boxes and figurines on one shelf, including a set of owls whose heads are touching.

And then there’s a downstairs room filled with sports memorabilia that serves as ample evidence of the family’s lifelong love of sports. A huge poster of former Browns’ quarterback Bernie Kosar stands out.

“Bernie was my wife’s favorite,” he said.

Petroff said after so many years together, it’s hard to fathom that his wife isn’t by his side.

“I go to the store and start to talk to her, and then I catch myself,” he said.

Going to bed around 10 p.m. most nights, he sleeps mostly on a living room sofa now. Mealtime is different, too. Some days, dinner consists of frozen meals unless he joins his sons and their families.

At this point, Petroff knows that he won’t be whole until he and Jeanne are together again.

“I can’t wait to get there,” he said.

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.