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Love's Pension Lost : Council Caught Between Cupid, Cash; Firefighter's Widow Doing a Slow Burn

February 15, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The conflict is classic. On one side is the law; on the other, the heart. And in the middle is a City Council that must decide between the two.

At issue: whether the widow of a retired city employee whose marriage is recognized by the church but not the state should get a pension.

If the answer is yes, City Atty. John Calhoun said, "we might be accused of making a gift of public funds."

If the council says no, argues Councilman Wallace Edgerton, then "whatever happened to romance?"

The heart of the matter is that of Rosa Aichreidler, 62, a resident of Salzburg, Austria, and the widow of H. Barton Gearhart, a former battalion chief in the Long Beach Fire Department.

Upon retiring from the department in 1951 after 21 years, Gearhart moved to Austria where he was an assistant fire marshal for the U.S. Armed Forces stationed there. In 1973 he married Aichreidler, an Austrian citizen.

By the time he died last November at the age of 85, according to family members, Gearhart was collecting more than $2,000 a month in retirement benefits that comprised the major source of livelihood for him and his Austrian bride.

But there was a hitch. The couple had been married in a church. Austrian law requires that a civil ceremony also be performed to make a marriage legal. And California law recognizes a marriage as valid only if it is legal under the laws of the state or country in which it was performed.

So last week when the Long Beach City Council received a written request from Aichreidler to continue receiving her husband's pension as his widow, it was accompanied by a recommendation from Calhoun's office that the request be denied.

"These are public funds," said Dick Allesso, the deputy city attorney who is handling the case. "The law as far as pension benefits is concerned is that a widow is entitled to receive a pension. The question here is very simple: is she the widow? Our investigation thus far indicates that Austrian law does not recognize this as a valid marriage."

Interviewed Thursday at her home in Austria, however, Aichreidler, speaking in German, said that her marriage was valid in every other respect.

"He was a wonderful man," she said of Gearhart in a telephone conversation. "There was no other man like him."

Peggy Dare, Gearhart's daughter by a previous marriage who now owns a pager leasing business in Long Beach, said she considers the marriage valid and would like to see her stepmother get the pension.

"She was an extremely good wife to my father," Dare said. "She loved him very much and he loved her very much. I know the money would mean a lot to her."

The couple did not marry in a civil ceremony, Dare said, because Aichreidler feared losing a small widow's pension she already received as a result of a previous marriage. In addition, she said, the couple was the target of occasional anti-American gibes from anonymous telephone callers. They were believed to be politically motivated. "Maintaining her Austrian name (and identity) was a protection," Dare said.

The widow's plight drew sympathy last week from members of the Long Beach City Council who, after some discussion, instructed the city attorney's office to reconsider its position on the matter and return with a recommendation Tuesday.

"(This is) a technicality, pure and simple," said Councilman Warren Harwood. "I think a religious ceremony ought to mean something."

Concluded Edgerton: "I really like issues like this because (they) make us competitive with the soaps."

Times Staff Writer Ralph Cipriano contributed to this story.

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