He saw her on a World War II recruiting poster tucked in the window of a photography shop on Central across the street from the University of New Mexico, and, oh, was he was smitten.
It was the summer of 1943 as the war raged overseas and recruiting posters featuring comely, confident women were ubiquitous. He was Richard Beidleman, a Naval Reserve officer who had been transferred from Colorado to midshipman’s school at UNM.
She was Reba Rutz, a 21-year-old English major at UNM who had made quite a name for herself on campus even before she was chosen by a group of Santa Fe artists to model for the poster. She was a smart one, a member of the Mortar Board, an honor society for female scholars, and she participated in a number of other academic, literary and philanthropic endeavors.
Although the poster was part of a national effort to encourage women to join the WAVES, the women’s division of the Naval Reserve, or the SPARS, the nickname for the Coast Guard Women’s Reserves, Rutz was in neither.
But something had caught the attention of artists, particularly that of Jefferson Elliott Greer, stationed during the war with the Navy Recruiting Office in Santa Fe and famous for helping to carve the face of George Washington on Mount Rushmore.
It was Greer who painted Rutz for the poster.
It was Beidleman who fell in love with her.
He had seen her before on campus, but she was initially wary of this eager sailor. Eventually, she invited him to her church, where she taught Sunday school. Eventually, he persuaded her to go out with him.
A year later, he persuaded her to marry him. And then he shipped off to war in the Pacific.
On Sept. 5, 1946, two years to the day after their engagement, the war over, his enlistment done, her master’s in English literature completed, they wed at the Monte Vista Christian Church near UNM.
They lived, quite literally, happily ever after for the next 44 years. He became a distinguished biology professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs; she became his essential assistant for his many books and research projects. They raised three children, the youngest of whom lives in Santa Fe today.
“Theirs was a real romance,” said Carol Beidleman, director of bird conservation for Audubon New Mexico in Santa Fe. “My dad may have been smitten by my mother’s looks, but what seemed to draw him equally once he found her was how very intellectual she was.”
In 1987, Colorado College dedicated the Beidleman Environmental Center to both Richard and Reba Beidleman for their work on environmental issues. The Beidleman Award is still given annually to a student at the college who shows the most aptitude for becoming a professional ecologist or field biologist. At UNM, the Reba Rutz Beidleman Memorial Endowed Scholarship is awarded each year to a graduating senior pursuing an English graduate degree.
You might have guessed by now that even the happiest of ever-afters eventually must end, some more tragically than others. This is one of those.
After Richard Beidleman’s retirement from academia in 1988, the couple moved to Pacific Grove, Calif. They were walking near the beach in 1990 when a drunken driver slammed into them, killing Reba and seriously injuring Richard.
He recuperated slowly with the help of a former student, and she eventually became his second wife. He and Linda Beidleman have been married now for 22 years.
But he never forgot the beautiful girl in the recruiting poster.
He is 90 now but in failing health. He is being treated for cancer and, his daughter said, the prognosis is not good. His memory of yesterday is murky, he cannot recall the details of the poster, but his recall of seeing Reba’s face in the window of the photography shop is clear as that bright summer day in 1943.
“I never did see that poster or the painting it came from again,” he said in a call from his home in Pacific Grove. “Reba never spoke of it. That would be just like her.”
About a year ago, and with Linda’s blessing, he asked his daughter to find the poster her mother had posed for in 1943.
“I thought it would be relatively easy to find,” Carol Beidleman said. “I thought I would surprise him this Christmas with the poster.”
This Christmas, she fears, will be his last.
But it has not been easy. She and older sister, Janet Beidleman Robson, an experienced genealogy whiz who lives in Australia, have conducted an extensive search, tapping Journal military affairs reporter Charles Brunt for assistance.
All three have contacted numerous state and national military groups, libraries, historians and alumni associations, retired Navy and Coast Guard commanders and members of women’s veteran organizations. They have searched dozens of websites for poster collections and military memorabilia and looked for family members of Greer, the artist who painted the poster.
“It’s hard to find a poster we have never seen and, until recently, never knew existed,” Carol Beidleman said. “I don’t even know any distinctive aspects of the poster.”
This is where you, dear readers, come in. The Beidlemans are hoping one of you knows of or has the 1943 WAVES/SPARS poster painted by Greer and featuring Reba Rutz Beidleman. Time, as you may imagine, is of the essence.
It’s a long shot, sure, but then so was a young man’s quest to find the woman in the poster 70 years ago, and look how beautifully, how gloriously that turned out.