A Portrait to Remember: A Veteran's Love Story

Posted at 4:34 PM, May 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-30 18:25:14-04

They held each others hearts and hands for 62 years.

Now, retired U.S. Army Cpl. Elroy York holds on tightly to a portrait of his beloved bride, Agnes.

"I had a great wife," said a teary-eyed York.

York's wife died 11 years ago.

"Dad loved mom so much and it meant everything to him," said Rebecca Kohne, the couple's only child. "As you see, so many years have passed and he still has this picture."

The hand-painted portrait Kohn is referring to was created 71 years ago in Normandy, France.

It was 1944 and York had just stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II.  Only a year into his marriage, York kept a small photograph of his beloved bride with him at all times.  It was during a forbidden conversation that York would share the picture with an enemy soldier he'd been assigned to guard.

"He says, 'Picture of your wife?' I say yes. He says, 'May I see it?' I said yes," York recalled.

In broken English, the German soldier would explain to York he was an artist and would paint a portrait of his wife.

York allowed the man to take his wife's photo.

"As soon as he started talking to me, I realized, gee, he doesn't like this anymore than I do. We both don't want to be at war," York explained.

Two weeks later while on patrol, York once again spotted the German soldier.  In his arms, he carried a piece of wood.  On one side, there was a painting of York's wife.

Separated by a fence and barbed wire, York remembers how they debated getting the painting into York's hands.  If spotted by his fellow soldiers, York would not have been able to keep the painting.

Instead, after much urging, York says he convinced the soldier to throw it over the fence.

"I said, 'I played baseball in high school, I'll catch it,'" York recalled.

And he did.

York never saw the soldier again.

And while the soldier's first initial and last name is signed on the painting, York would never hear of the man again either.

Still, the painting is something York continues to be grateful for as every year passes.

"Seventy-one years and I still think about it every day," he said.

The painting serves just as much as a reminder of his time in the military as it does of his beloved wife.

York proudly shows the painting off and tells the story often.

Only, it's not a story you will hear, rather it is one you could easily miss as York bags your groceries at Publix.

"How are you?" York politely questions a customer at the store's Lakewood Ranch location.

York began working at Publix 15 years ago.  His co-workers becoming more like family once his wife died.

It is unclear if those passing through the checkout line know of York's service to his country, his willingness to give an enemy a chance or the love he still has for his deceased wife.

He still wears his wedding ring.

"It's been rough but I have been fortunate to get through it all," he added.

York tried on the jacket to his old uniform and it fit.  He explained his uniform pants wouldn't fit as aging has taken away six inches of his height.

"I am only 5'3 now," he said.

But through it all, just as he holds on to his wife's portrait, he is also holding on to his sense of humor.

"I am the old York, not the new York," York said while chuckling.