Frank and Barbara Jean Sonntag clasp hands as Dan Canady, former pastor of The Journey at First Baptist, officiates the renewing of their vows Sunday at the church. The couple reunited in 2011 after more than 15 years of separation.

Photo by Mary Austin

Frank and Barbara Jean Sonntag clasp hands as Dan Canady, former pastor of The Journey at First Baptist, officiates the renewing of their vows Sunday at the church. The couple reunited in 2011 after more than 15 years of separation.

Craig couple reunites through hardship, faith

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Frank Sonntag smiles as he is wheeled down the aisle during the renewal of his wedding vows Sunday at the Journey at First Baptist. He and his wife Barbara Jean were married Aug. 20, 1960, in Reno, Nev., and had never had a formal church wedding.

Quotable

“We feel that God used all of this to bring us back together again and to restore a family.”

— Barbara Jean Sonntag, of Craig, about reuniting with her husband, Frank

As Barbara Jean Sonntag sees it, her husband Frank has nothing if not a good sense of humor.

It doesn’t take long to see what she means.

At their Craig home Monday morning, she lists off the names and ages of their five children — Jeff, 51; Lisa, 50; Richard, 49; Danny, 47; and Cathy, 43—when Frank chimes in.

Having children, he said, is “like eating peanuts. Once you start, you can’t quit.”

And on his wife, with whom he renewed wedding vows Sunday: “As long as she behaves herself, I’ll keep her,” he said, laughing.

Yet his voice becomes tender when he and Barbara Jean reflect on their long and sometimes difficult history.

“I’ve met and known a lot of women in my life, and there’s even a few I wanted to marry at the time,” he said.

“I don’t think any of those others would have done the things for me that my wife does for me now,” he said.

For Frank, 77, and Barbara Jean, 74, renewing their vows was the capstone to a reunion that unfolded after more than 15 years of separation.

Their history began like many marriages do: A girl catches a glimpse of a good-looking guy from across the room and a spark ignites.

“He was handsome,” Barbara Jean said. “He was cute. He had a great personality, and he had blonde hair and those big eyes.”

The next summer, on Aug. 20, 1960, a justice of the peace married them in Reno, Nev.

They brought their family to Craig in 1978 after Frank was hired at what is now known as Tri-State Generation and Transmission.

With a full house and a good job, they seemed to have what many couples dream of. But daily pressures crept in, leaving fissures in the bedrock of their marriage.

“There was so much going on in our lives,” Barbara Jean said.

They eventually decided to live apart, but even then, they couldn’t simply walk away.

Frank and Barbara Jean remained in contact and occasionally took vacations together, she said. Some people didn’t even realize they were separated.

“It was more of a sabbatical than it was a divorce,” Frank said.

Then in 1994, cancer sent shockwaves through their lives. Frank was diagnosed with lymphoma, “the kind that you die from,” Barbara Jean said.

He made a recovery, only to be diagnosed with prostate cancer in the early 2000s and another lymphoma-type cancer last year.

In October 2010, he suffered a massive stroke that left him immobilized on his left side and in need of a caregiver.

Barbara Jean took on that role — not out of obligation, she said, but out of love inspired by their relationship and her faith.

“It’s not work,” she said. “It’s the joy because I’m serving out of love. I’m not doing it because I have to.”

Frank moved into her home in February 2011, and their relationship blossomed into an affection deeper than they had known before.

“What we didn’t have all those years was the love — the sustaining, deep love” embodied in their wedding vows, Barbara Jean said.

Renewing those vows Sunday at The Journey at First Baptist was a visible symbol of their renewed commitment. And this time, they decided to include all the trimmings of the church wedding they never had.

On Monday, they were glad to recount their first meeting more than 50 years ago—albeit with Frank’s characteristic flair.

When asked what attracted him to Barbara Jean when he first saw her in a bar long ago, he paused before answering, a mischievous glint in his eye.

“I guess you were the only one in there,” he said to her, smiling impishly.

“Frank, stop it,” Barbara Jean said in mock outrage.

His eyes were kind despite his gentle teasing, and her laughter showed she was, despite her protestations, enjoying their verbal sparring.

Barbara Jean believes their relationship is an affirmation that love can survive with selflessness, commitment and faith.

“We feel that God used all of this to bring us back together again and to restore a family,” she said. “That’s the important thing.”

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