Reigniting an old flame

World War II vet's secret comes to light nearly 60 years later

Charlie Franza reunited with his first love, Mary Sutherland, nearly five years after Nettie’s death. Here they are pictured dancing during one of their many dinner dates.
Charlie Franza reunited with his first love, Mary Sutherland, nearly five years after Nettie’s death. Here they are pictured dancing during one of their many dinner dates.
Photo courtesy Charlie Franza

Part Two of “Haunted by a long-ago love”

“What’s the deal with that nurse?” Charlie Franza asked another nurse at a U.S. Army Air Forces hospital in Garden City in late 1945. “She’s beautiful.” 

Franza, now 94, was recalling the first time he saw his wife, Nettie. She wore white stockings, a white uniform and a nurse’s hat. She walked past Franza, who wore a striped nurse’s aid uniform, but paid him no attention. 

“She’s married,” the nurse told Franza. “But she’s separating from her husband.” 

After learning that she was married, Franza decided he would not pursue the nurse, whose name was Nettie Felder. But one day, as he waited at the bus stop near the hospital gate to head back to Mitchel Air Force Base in Hempstead, where he was stationed, a car pulled up, and the driver shouted, “You need a lift, soldier?” Franza saw Felder behind the wheel. He was startled, but hopped into her car, and she drove him to the base. 

The next day, she did the same, Franza recalled. The third day, as he was about to get out of her car, she asked him, “What’s wrong with me? I get hit on by doctors all day. And here you are. You never make a pass at me. Are you normal, or are you odd?” 

“I don’t go with married women,” Franza responded. 

They ended up chatting in her car for some time, and Felder revealed that her husband, who was in the Army, was cold and inattentive after returning from battle overseas. She had decided to divorce him and sought a loving, warm relationship. 

“Now I can hit on you!” Franza said. He took her on a movie-and-soda date shortly afterward. He remembers quickly falling in love with Nettie, who was 11 years his senior, but having to gather the courage to tell her his secret. 

“I said to her, ‘I’m very fond of you, and I think I can love you,’” Franza recalled. “‘But I can’t have children.’” 

“That’s OK,” Nettie responded, much to his surprise. “I have four of my own.” 

‘I lost half of my life when I lost her’

From then on, Franza said, he and Nettie were inseparable. He described her as a jealous woman who was very possessive, but also kind, generous and loving. He was deployed to Guadalajara, Mexico, in early 1946, but his unit only got as far as Pyote, Texas, before it was called back to New York. 

Back at Mitchel Field, he was filling out discharge papers when he heard footsteps behind him. Mary Sutherland, his first girlfriend, had stormed into the room. “You’re no good!” she said, pointing at him. “You are vulgar, and no good! You shacked up with a married woman!” And with that, Sutherland ran out of the room, and Franza’s life, for good. Charlie Franza enjoyed one of his favorite pastimes, dancing, at the Salisbury/East Meadow Senior Center’s Valentine’s Day celebration last February.

He wanted to correct her and defend Felder, but Sutherland never gave him the chance. He realized that Sutherland was still in love with him, even two years after he had ended their relationship, unable to tell her he could not have children.

Franza said he often thought about Sutherland, but devoted himself to Nettie and her four children, George, Theodore, David and Robert. The boys accepted him as a father — since their real father was no longer around — and they became a family when Franza and Nettie were wed on July 7, 1949. The family settled in East Meadow.

“We had a wonderful marriage,” Franza said. “I raised my sons and gave them everything. They loved me and I loved them.” 

His world was shattered, however, in the 1980s, when he got a call informing him that their his youngest son, Robert, had been in a car accident. His torso had been smashed against the steering wheel and he had suffered severe internal injuries. “We lost him about two weeks later,” Franza said, reduced to tears even now, three decades later. “I cried and I cried.” 

A short time later, his oldest son, George, was diagnosed with Stage 

4 cancer. With George’s death, Charlie and Nettie now mourned the loss of two sons

. Nettie’s health began to decline, and after several tests, Franza said, doctors determined that her colon had attached itself to her bladder, causing severe pain.

“I had two scars on my heart from losing both my sons,” Franza said, still in tears. “I have never felt so sad in my life. The worst pain is outliving your children. And my wife was dying, too.”

He cooked meals for Nettie and cleaned their home. She was hospitalized when her health became fragile in 1999. Franza remembers holding her hand under the sheets four years later. “She looked up at me and said, ‘I’m glad I picked you to take care of me,’” he recalled. 

He told her he had to go home for a half-hour and would then return to the hospital. “She waved at me,” he said. “She died when I was home. I lost half of my life when I lost her.” 

‘I never stopped loving you’

Franza liked to tease his cat, Big Ben. 

“I lay down on the floor because I strained my back,” he laughed. “And Big Ben meowed and yelled at me. He thought I couldn’t get up! So he plopped down on my stomach and lay with me. He helped me cope with Nettie’s death.” 

Nearly five years after she died, he received an unexpected call, but instantly recognized the voice: it was Mary Sutherland. He had heard from mutual friends that her husband — one of Franza’s former trainees at Mitchel Field — had died. She had decided to call him to catch up. The pair went to a restaurant, and Franza finally had a chance to clear up the rumors Sutherland had heard all those years ago about Felder. “My wife was not a slut. She was a nurse, and she got divorced,” he told her. “God was good to me. He gave me four children who needed a father, and I raised them.

“I gave you an excuse that I was fooling around,” he said to Sutherland. “But the truth is, I couldn’t give you children. I didn’t want to get rid of you and you didn’t want to get rid of me, but it had to happen that way.” 

“Mary said, ‘Boy, you really thought it all out.’”

The pair soon rekindled the love they felt for each other when they first dated in 1942. They have been together more than 10 years now. Franza said they both enjoyed dancing, and he still sometimes hits the floor for a step or two at Salisbury/East Meadow Senior Center events. He spends time with Sutherland in a senior living home in East Meadow, where she lives. 

“Mary, she’s losing her eyesight,” he said. “We hold hands a lot.” 

Franza said he is lucky to have loved two women in his life. He visits Sutherland, who is now 93, as often as possible. “I told her, ‘I never stopped loving you,’” he said. 

“Now she says, ‘You know, it was meant to be.’”