By Karen Carr Keefe
It has been Linda and Jim, and Jim and Linda for more than 50 years - a friendship of two couples that has stood the test of time.
Both guys are named "Jim" and both gals are named "Linda," but the coincidences don't stop there for Linda and Jim Isenhart and Linda and Jim Schoepflin:
•Grew up and went to school together in Niagara Falls.
•Got married in the 1960s, just a little over a year apart.
•Had their kids in the 1970s - all boys! It was two for the Schoepflins, three for the Isenharts.
•Are godparents for each other's first sons.
•Have camped, hiked, celebrated approximately 40 New Year's Eves together and commemorated both happy and sad times over the years.
Their enduring friendship might be considered a rarity in these days when many people catch up solely through Facebook or text messages.
Linda Perno Isenhart and Linda Eodice Schoepflin met in the halls of Niagara Falls High School. They just celebrated their 50th reunion as graduates, but a more important anniversary this year is the 52nd year of their friendship.
"She would wait by the door of a class we were in together," Linda Isenhart recalls. "She always had this really nice smile. And I would say, 'Hi,' and we'd walk to our class together. I was 15, I can tell you that. It was in 10th grade."
What's the key to their longtime friendship?
"We were both raised pretty similarly, with our same family values," Linda Schoepflin said.
"I think that all that has been good because of the closeness of the four, not just the two," Linda Isenhart said.
"It's just a friendship that all these years has survived a lot," Schoepflin said. "A lot of people aren't around that long together. I've had lots of friends that (say), "Oh, we're going to get together, and they never get together."
But these two couples do. Whether it's dinner at each other's houses, dining out, golfing or shopping, the Isenharts, Grand Islanders for 38 years, and the Schoepflins, Niagara Falls residents, are part of the fabric of each other's lives.
Jim Isenhart and Jim Schoepflin have been friends since fifth grade at Sacred Heart Elementary School in the Falls. They went to Bishop Duffy High School together, then Niagara County Community College. "The little guy always had a big guy for a friend. He looked out for me," Jim Schoepflin said of his buddy.
"He was my brother from another mother," Jim Isenhart, said. "We did everything together. Hunting, fishing. And we've lived through the family tragedies. We've lived through the family good times."
"I believe of their family the same as they believe of my family. His kids and my kids - they're all the same family," Isenhart said.
His best friend agrees. "I just always thought that our family structure was sort of the same. Our ideals - our upbringings - were very similar," Jim Schoepflin said. "We both went to Catholic school. His dad was Protestant; my dad was Protestant. His mom was Italian; my mom was Italian. And they were about the same age and they all grew up in the Depression. And so, our values were pretty similar. When he would come to my house and I would go to his house, it was like being in our own homes.
"We ate at 6 o'clock; they ate at 6 o'clock. Meat and potatoes; meat and potatoes. Macaroni on Sunday - it was like that. ... Our families are very similar. Three sons; two sons."
A Half-century of Double Dates
The two women reminisced over lunch earlier this month.
"I went to her 16th birthday party, "Linda Schoepflin said. "And I was dating my now-husband, and she wasn't with anybody at the time. So I thought of my (eventual) husband's best friend, because he (Jim Isenhart) wasn't dating anybody.
"I said, 'You should meet this guy - he's a really nice guy,' " Schoepflin said.
"Just broke up with his girlfriend," Isenhart added, finishing her best friend's sentence easily.
Schoepflin interjects: "But the funny thing was, when she met him, I got a call from her mother."
"You did?" Isenhart asked, surprised.
"I told you this story. I did tell you!" Schoepflin forged on, "And her mother was quite the character, and she knew nothing about him. She said, 'I'm going to tell you right now, he better be a good guy. And if there's any problems, I'm calling you up.' "
"She's like the hit lady!" Isenhart chimed in.
"She was a dear lady - but, yeah - she pretty much threatened me," Schoepflin joked. But Linda Isenhart's mom never had a reason to doubt Linda Schoepflin's recommendation. And when Isenhart's mom, Edith Perno, passed away July 9, 1975, the two best friends grieved together.
Linda Perno started dating Jim Isenhart in June 1964, and they clicked right away. And the Lindas and the Jims have been double dating ever since. The Isenharts just celebrated their 48th anniversary on Oct. 12. The Schoepflins, celebrated their 49th on June 10.
The Early Years
Jim Schoepflin went into the Air Force after graduation during the Vietnam War draft. Jim Isenhart missed his buddy. "I felt so bad when he went into the service, 'cause we were going to go in together on the buddy plan. I didn't make it, and he did. And I felt so bad losing him because I felt like I lost part of myself, and I was worried about him." Linda Schoepflin worked at Niagara County Savings Bank in LaSalle for a year before getting engaged. She and her Jim got married June 10, 1967. The other Linda and Jim were their maid of honor and best man, respectively.
It was the Isenharts' turn a little more than a year later, and the Schoepflins returned the favor, acting as their matron of honor and best man.
Things were different back then - no elaborate rehearsal dinners or sleek limousines, they said. The "limo" was a Cadillac owned by Linda Schoepflin's dad, proprietor of Bucky's Barber Shop in the Falls. The rehearsal dinner was some food cooked by Jim Isenhart's mom.
"The guys all left, and went to get their hair done, and they drank, and they sang, and my dad played the harmonica," Linda Isenhart recalled. "And my dad had an organ in the barber shop," Schoepflin said.
The Lindas said their dads got together and sang at another family wedding, too. "It's almost like we were really family, rather than just friends," Linda Schoepflin said. "In fact, a lot of people ask if we are sisters," Isenhart said, adding that her own sister, Maria Burns, often brought her son, Bruce, along when all the three women got together with the six kids.
The Schoepflins had moved to Long Island, where he was stationed for two years, and just made it home for their best friends' wedding shortly before they shipped off for the next tour of duty in Hawaii.
Once both families were back in Niagara Falls, the two women would take their babies out in strollers and meet on Pine Avenue in the Falls. The Isenharts lived on 24th and Cleveland and the Schoepflins lived on 16th and Ferry. They would meet around 24th and Pine and go to the City Market. Then they would walk back to one of their houses and usually have dinner together on Friday night. They also used to go to get their hair cut at Schoepflin's dad's barber shop, then take him out for breakfast to thank him.
"Not one of our families were anything with means, at all," Jim Isenhart said. "We all had nothing, really. We used to go out of town together on what we called our austerity budget. We'd get together and say, 'How much you got left?' 'I don't know. I can raise $20, maybe.' We're still going to go. But we'll go on our austerity budget."
Up in Smoke
Over the years, there have been some moments that make them smile now, even if they weren't so funny at the time. The two men recalled one that involved breaking a bad habit.
"I made him quit smoking," Jim Isenhart said of his buddy.
"New Year's Eve we were here," Schoepflin said during an interview at Isenharts' house. "We all smoked at the time. Jim was a part-time smoker, Linda (Isenhart ) was every once-in-a-while. But my Linda and I, we smoked regularly," Schoepflin said.
"We were talking about New Year's resolutions. Our kids had given us a tough time. They wouldn't come to the dinner table to eat if we were smoking, and they were always on our case. We're sitting right over here at the coffee table," Schoepflin said, pointing to the table in the Isenhart's family room. "We had our cigarettes on the table. And I said 'We gotta quit smoking for New Year's.' ... I mean I know this guy - the minute I said that, I knew he was going to go for the cigarettes. And he grabbed my pack of cigarettes. Poom, he throws them in the fireplace. The fire was rip roarin'.' Linda (Schoepflin) tried to react, but it was too late," he said. "We quit smoking, cold turkey, on New Year's Eve. That was it - never smoked again."
Jim Isenhart said he did it for his friend's health. "I said, this kid has gotta stop. That's it!"
There were no hard feelings about Jim Isenhart's abrupt action, only laughter and relief. "I don't think we have had a cross word with each other, ever," Isenhart said.
Jim Schoepflin recalls another occasion when his friend made another abrupt, but helpful move. "One time, I was going to remodel the kitchen - and I don't know which end of the hammer to use. So, I'm standing in the kitchen one Saturday morning. Jim was workin', he just happened to be in our neighborhood, stopped over, thought I would have the kitchen, like, torn down. He said, 'What's the matter?' I said, 'I just can't - I'm afraid to start going.' He says, 'Here, let me help you,' picked up a hammer, (crash) makes a big hole in the wall. He was always good for the teardown."
"I'm a destroyer," Isenhart replied. "I'm not much of a builder. But if you want something gone, it'll be gone."
Brewing a mild controversy
The two Lindas also can claim a very amiable relationship.
"We get along really well because, I'd say, we're pretty even-tempered," Isenhart said. "And it's give-and-take, let's face it. I'm sure I've said things that have annoyed her."
Schoepflin said, "And I've done things, I'm sure."
"But you get past it because you're friends and you don't let little pettiness interfere," Isenhart said.
"We have never had an argument - disagreement - ever, have we?" Linda Schoepflin asked Linda Isenhart when they got together recently. "No, really haven't," was the reply.
"Well, one time," Schoepflin continued.
"I said something about her coffee," Isenhart interrupted.
Her friend continued. "That was a long time ago, and I got so upset with her, because my coffee wasn't strong enough. So then the next time she came, I made her make her own coffee. That's the only time we had a disagreement," Schoepflin said.
Working for a Living
Linda Isenhart worked at what was then Hooker Chemical in Niagara Falls, at a Grand Island school cafeteria for eight years, then for 11 years at Astellas on Grand Island. Linda Schoepflin was employed for a CPA firm and in architects' offices, among other positions. "I had very interesting, great jobs," Schoepflin said.
Jim Isenhart began at Nabisco, where he was the "relief guy" for his father-in-law, Frank Perno. He retired from New York Telephone after a long career there. Jim Schoepflin retired from Unifrax.
"We were captains of industry - well, maybe lieutenants," Jim Schoepflin quipped. "We get together more now, well since we quit work."
Both Jims belonged to the Gill Creek Athletic Association, which has since been dissolved. They were active members for about 20 years in the 1980s and 1990s.
Schoepflin remembered with a laugh, "We had one huge fundraiser. It was a 10-week raffle. Boy, you had to put the arm on everybody."
The two women have always taken each other out for a birthday lunch, they enjoy shopping, seeing movies, having pedicures. They've taken ceramics classes together and used to do their Christmas shopping together when the kids were young.
And while the women are out together, the two men have their standard favorites, too, "If they're shopping, I'll go to his house and we'll do our usual Manhattans, and we love oysters and clams together. If they come this way, it's the same way," Isenhart said.
The Good Times
The high points of their lives as friends, the couples agree, have been the weddings, the birth of the children, the kids growing up, the birth of the grandchildren - seven in all between the two families. "The grandchildren are, like, our life, you know," Schoepflin said. "We've been through a lot. We've had wonderful celebrations, happy times, and we've had very sad times, too."
The friendship has been a joy in the good times and a comfort in the bad.
"Anything that happens in our families, we're there. Whatever they need, it doesn't matter, I don't care what the request is, we do it," Jim Isenhart said.
"It's almost more like brothers than friends," Jim Schoepflin said. "Our kids have continued the tradition. We've stayed close. We like each other."