Don and Helen Rowland’s home in Temple is filled with mementos from a life well shared for 50 years. Asian art is juxtaposed with Southwest Native American imagery and wall hangings. But the most prominent of all their collections, except maybe Don’s golf clubs, is Helen’s collection of more than 100 camels, some big, some small, some ceramic or china or stuffed toy camels — her favorite animal and a memory of her life in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she met Don, just a little more than 50 years ago.
One might wonder how did a boy from Carthage, Texas, with a passion for golf meet a girl from Denver, Colo., with a passion for adventure in 1966 Kabul.
The journey began for Helen in 1958. After deciding to leave college, she joined the U.S. Women’s Army Corps and spent two and a half years stationed in Heidelberg, Germany. During that time she traveled to other European countries. Kabul was just a dot on the world map; a place she didn’t even know existed at the time.
After her discharge from the Army in 1962, she went home to Denver and took a job. But something was missing.
“A chance reading in the Denver Post Want Ads looking for people who wanted travel and adventure with the State Department caught my eye,” she said.
The ad was with the secretary of agriculture for the United States Agency for International Development. It didn’t take long for the travel bug to bite again. Her choices were between working in Pakistan, India or Afghanistan. She chose Afghanistan because “it was the most remote, and I never heard of it.”
Her work with the USAID Department of Agriculture was aimed to help Afghans “grow more and better crops.”
“Joining the Foreign Service was exciting, a new opportunity,” Helen said.
Just as she was beginning her service in 1965 in Kabul, Don Rowland, a young Air Force APO specialist who served in Madrid, and opened an APO in Tehran, Iran, was about to be reassigned for his last six months of duty in Kabul.
“Madrid, Tehran and Kabul were my three assignments,” Don said. “We opened the APO postal services in Tehran and I assisted the US Air Force couriers traveling through Tehran to Kabul, Afghanistan. In Kabul, I opened the APO to support the Americans and I assisted the Air Force couriers traveling through Kabul to Pakistan.”
Living in Kabul at the time was fairly safe for Americans, but precautions still had to be taken. Helen lived in a house completely surrounded by a six-foot wall. She had a servant, a stable for her horse that she freely rode around the area, and kept a bicycle as her primary mode of transportation to and from work.
“People were friendly, they loved Americans. I rode my bicycle two miles back and forth to work, and was never afraid,” she said, adding that there was a Russian presence on the roads in and around Kabul at that time.
Beginning of a lifelong romance
On nights she wanted to socialize, Helen sometimes rode her horse over to the USAID staff house that housed U.S. military and American diplomats, and also offered a restaurant and club for Americans in Kabul.
She was decked out in her riding gear when she strolled into the club one night, unaware of a young U.S. Air Force APO specialist sitting on the opposite side of the small horseshoe-shaped bar, watching her. The club was a safe place for Americans and was not so different from that TV bar from the 1980s where “everyone knows your name.”
She was greeted with a friendly wave or a loud hello from some of the other patrons, and the young Don was captivated by the tall, blonde woman strolling in.
“I was attracted to Helen the first time I saw her,” said Don, smiling as he recalled the night he met Helen. “I thought she was absolutely beautiful.”
Helen was sitting on the opposite side of the bar from Don. He said hello to her from his seat, and several others acknowledged her presence, but she got up to walk to the other side of the room. She wasn’t immediately impressed.
“From what I saw going on, on his side of the bar, I thought he was a little arrogant,” she said. Don wasn’t alone for long. Several other young women attracted to the tall, handsome Texan made their own presence known to him. But Don’s attention was solely on Helen.
After finally getting to spend a little time with her that night, he said he knew she was going to be a challenge. “She was very astute,” he said.
Helen had a boyfriend at the time, a Navy Seabee. But that didn’t stop Don from inviting her to the George Washington Ball, a formal event with local diplomats. Helen accepted his invitation but needed a gown. So she flew to Pakistan the following week to have a custom gown made.
“The ball was fabulous, we had such a nice time,” she recalled. “We both knew at that moment we were meant for each other.”
More dates followed the ball and Don was a welcome dinner guest at Helen’s home. “My servant loved him.”
With his service coming to an end, he didn’t want to lose Helen. Just before he left for Tehran, Iran, to be processed out, he proposed, but her response was not what he expected.
“I didn’t give him the immediate, positive response he hoped for,” she said.
“I was crushed. It wasn’t an absolute no; she said she had to think about it,” he added.
Once he returned to the States and was discharged, he waited about two weeks.
“And then I sent her an engagement ring,” he said.
A new life
The Rowlands were married in Carthage on Dec. 15, 1966, less than one year from when they first met. They lived in Carthage for the first three months of their marriage before moving to Denver, where they lived for 15 years.
Don began his career in the candy industry and Helen worked in customer service for Frontier Airlines before their son Paige was born. A second child, their daughter Caycee, followed. Don’s career took the family from Denver to Chicago to Bryan, Ohio, before moving to Central Texas in 2000, where they’ve lived for 16 years in a golf community.
“When Helen and I moved to Temple, we both thought this probably would not be the last stop,” said Don, who retired as the vice president, sales, for the Spangler Candy Co., in 2006. “But economically, the state of Texas made great sense, not to mention, living in a golfing community with many wonderful friends.”
For Don, who started golfing at the age of 12, this means he can get out and play three to five times a week. Helen also plays in a woman’s golf association.
When asked what the secret is to their long marriage, and what advice they may have for couples just starting out, Don said, “Three things would help the longevity of a marriage: Be patient, be a good listener and be flexible.”
With flexibility, they both agree, don’t always think you have the right answer or that your idea is the best. “Be flexible with decision making,” he said.
When it comes to listening, Helen said “listen to each other, talk to each other.”
“Most people learn to be a good listener in business, they have to be able to listen (at home),” added Don. “But most people just don’t like to listen and prefer to do all the talking, so be a good listener; and have patience with things that may not go along the way you might want them to go. And also be willing to compromise.” If there is a disagreement, he said it “must be resolved before going to bed.”
“All marriages have challenges. It’s easy for us because our love has grown each year. Fifty years doesn’t seem possible. Our bond keeps getting stronger and stronger as time goes on,” he said. “I’m here for Helen.”
“And he is my heart and soul,” Helen said.