The sentiment is what always mattered most to Fred Warther. His store at 814 H St. NE, Warther's 5 and 10, had in stock every Valentine's Day greeting card imaginable - from a Hallmark to a RustCraft, from one costing a nickel to a glossy, heart-shaped etching that went for $5.
But when it came time to pick out a card for his special valentine, Alice Carstens of Baltimore, Fred Warther did not concern himself with price.
"I read the verses," Warther recalled yesterday at his home in Cheverly, with his wife of 50 years, Alice, at his side. "It could be a nickel or 50 cents or a dollar card. I always went by the sentiment."
The 78-year-old man blushed, straightened his tie and looked down at his brightly polished black shoes when asked what his favorite sentiment was. "It was Pal-O'-My-Heart," he said. "Pal-O'-My-Heart/True to me/Dear to me/Ever Believing/Never deceiving . . . that's about all I can remember."
"I don't remember that," said Alice. "Of course, I had a lot of cards from old boyfriends, but I threw them out when I married Fred."
That marriage, on Sept. 3, 1927, at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Baltimore, was something that Fred Warther had been trying to achieve for four years, ever since the night in 1923 when he skipped a church convention in Washington to go out to a Chinese restaurant with the tall, dark-haired woman friend he had met that afternoon through his first cousin.
Alice could not remember that first date nay better than she could remember Pal-O'-My-Heart. "No, no," she said as Fred went through the story. Then, "Oh, yeah, I guess he's right."
She had a fresher recollection of the rest of the courtship.
"Fred would come up on the WB&A (Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railroad) on his day off - Sundays," she said."I was working as a secretary at a Baltimore chemical company and he was a partner in his father's variety store. I'd meet at the trolley stop and we'd go to the park or the beach or to church where I sang the choir. When he didn't show up, I had other boyfriends."
"I remember that one guy you went out with," said Fred. "He was from the Naval academy. I didn't think I had a chance against him."
"Oh, he was just a friend from church. We'd play tennis together," responded Alice. "You know, you didn't play tennis, Fred."
Fred didn't play tennis, but he did have enough money, and money love, to buy Alice a ring. He tried to give it to her in 1926. "She wouldn't take it," he said, smiling. "She said her widowed mother needed her more than I did. So I took it back to Washington and threw it in a bureau drawer."
"Oh, Fred," said Alice. "Don't say it like that."
Fred cooled off for a year, until Alice wrote him a letter asking why he was not taking the $1.50 train up to see her as often. "Then I knew I could ask her again." He did; she accepted.
After the wedding, Alice moved in with Fred in his small apartment on H Street above Warther's 5 and 10. She worked at his side, from 8 a.m. to the 9 p.m. closing time, for several years until she had the first of their two sons.
"It was a lot of hard work," Alice said. "I stayed upstairs with the children. Sometimes Fred would ring for me and I'd come down to help him. We had our differences once in a while, but we always worked it out."
In 1950, with their children grown and business dropping, Fred got out of the variety business. He tried a few other enterprises before settling down in a job with People's Drug store in Bethesda. Alice went to work as a secretary for a photography company. They moved out of Washington to a solid brick home on Cheverly Avenue.
"Our love was based on hard work and respect," said Alice. It's not real mushy, but practical and good. We didn't have nicknames like 'love-dovey' or anything like that Not like some of our friends."
"You're talking about my best friend," Fred said. "He was always schmoozing around in public with his wife. I don't like that in public."
Fred touched his wife's hand. "Fifty years. The first fifty years is the hardest, they say. The rest of the way you can coast."