A long time coming

Les and Leah Axelrod at their home in Highland Park, Ill., on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. (Andrew A. Nelles, Chicago Tribune / May 22, 2012)

Les and Leah had one date a year for five years. In between those dates they didn't talk, didn't write, didn't think about each other.

"The truth is, I was totally indifferent," says Les Axelrod.

Once every year from 1945 to 1949 Leah Mandelker traveled from her home in Milwaukee to visit cousins Ann Ruth and Jack in St. Louis.

And for each of those years, Jack would fix Leah up with one of his Zeta Beta Tau fraternity brothers from Washington University.

For five straight years, Les got tapped as one of Leah's dates. He did it as a favor to his fraternity brother. "It was an obligation," he says.

And, let it be said, Leah was equally indifferent to Les. "I'd have a different date every night for a week and Les was one of these guys," she says. No big deal.

Was there ever any little hint of romance on any of those annual dates? At almost the same moment, both of them — emphatically — say "No!"

Maybe it was a change of geography that made the difference — wiping out all that indifference. By Thanksgiving 1950, Les had joined the Navy and was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago, not too far from Milwaukee.

Now it was Leah's turn to host Les, who came to her family's home for turkey and all the trimmings.

After that, "I thought the least I could do was invite Leah back to Great Lakes for boot camp graduation, which was in December," he says. "We graduated just before Christmas leave. I had the week between Christmas and New Year's off.

"The least she could do was invite me back to Milwaukee for that week."

Was there — finally — romance in the air? After all, they'd been dating, if sporadically, for six years.

"Not yet, but you're close," Les says.

On Dec. 24, 1950, in front of the fireplace in Leah's parents' living room, "Leah kissed me, and sparks flew."

"I had kissed him previously on dates, but it didn't mean anything," she explains. And why, suddenly, was this kiss different from all the rest?

In a terse summary of the mystery of love, Leah says, "Isn't that strange? I don't know."

"We stayed up most of the night of Dec. 24 just talking," Les says.

"After this long evening, Leah turns to me and says, 'You realize you haven't asked me to marry you.' I said, 'I don't intend to live in sin with you.'"

Leah: "That was it." She'd asked for a proposal. He had backed into one, and they were engaged.