LONG BEACH — With a note of regret, the City Council voted Tuesday to deny a widow's pension to the Austrian wife of a deceased fire battalion chief because they were never legally married.
"It had all the earmarks of a good television play," Councilman Wallace Edgerton said. "I must say I was rooting for the woman.
"But on an intellectual basis," he continued, "I felt the only decision I could make in the interest of the taxpayers of Long Beach was to say no."
The council endorsed a recommendation by Deputy City Atty. Richard A. Alesso, who stated that awarding a pension to 62-year-old Rosa Aichreidler of Salzburg might "constitute an impermissible gift of public funds."
In 1973, Aichreidler married H. Barton Gearhart, an assistant fire marshal for the U.S. Armed Forces stationed in Austria. Gearhart had gone overseas after serving two decades in the Long Beach Fire Department, from which he retired in 1951. Until his death last November at the age of 85, he and his wife had collected about $2,000 a month in city retirement benefits. Aichreidler recently requested that she continue to draw the benefits as Gearhart's widow.
But because the couple had a church wedding--without the civil ceremony required by Austrian law--their union was "not accorded legal recognition or validity," Alesso wrote in a Feb. 24 letter to the council.
In fact, the lawyer said the Gearharts had avoided any civil ceremony "to preserve a pension Mrs. Aichreidler was receiving by reason of her former marriage. We understand also that she was an Austrian citizen at all times and continued to use her former name."
Aichreidler acknowledged that she feared losing her Austrian pension but maintained that she used her own name to protect herself from occasional anti-American harassment, according to Peggy Dare, who is Gearhart's daughter by a previous marriage.