Saltwater Portrait

Joan and Bob Rice: Couple reunites after 60 years

Life twists and turns bring them full circle
August 15, 2017

For 60 years, Joan and Bob Rice passed each other like ships in the night.

The teen sweethearts broke up in 1956, shortly after Bob joined the Navy. Three years older than Joan, Bob decided to end their relationship – a decision that haunted him throughout his life.

“I was moving away, and I wanted to let her go on with her life,” he said.

If only she could.

“I was a mess. A young girl broken-hearted,” Joan said. “My brothers tried to be nice, kept telling me I'd find someone. But I never found someone like Bob.”

Their years were spent with other people, interspersed with brief moments when they found each other at the most inopportune times.

Two years after breaking up and fresh out of the Navy, Bob returned to his mother's home in Pennsauken, N.J., and saw Joan. His feelings for her were still strong, but he could tell her family disapproved.

“We were sitting next to each other talking, and her mother walked by and said, 'Joan, don't forget you’re engaged to be married,'” he said. “I wanted to tell her to give back her ring and marry me instead, but after that I said forget it.”

The two married their first spouses: Joan had three children, Bob four.

Before and after his time in the Navy, Bob worked at a Pennsylvania steel mill. He had dropped out of high school in 11th grade to work; Joan also dropped out of school in 11th grade for a clerical job. After several years, Bob pursued his dream of working for New Jersey State Police. Twelve years of highway patrol and hundreds of drug arrests later, he went undercover.

He grew long hair, a long beard and pierced his ears. He rode a Harley, drove a Corvette and got to know some of the biggest drug dealers in New Jersey.

Joan confesses it would have been difficult to be married to him during his undercover days. “There's probably a good reason were weren't together then. I would've been a nervous mess,” she said.

But not Bob.

“I enjoyed people thinking I was a dirt bag,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “I knew I was good, and I enjoyed going to jail with a gun in my boot.”

No one knew he was undercover – sometimes not even the cops. After one big drug bust, an officer from another township roughed him up a bit. “He took me out and put a seatbelt around my neck and was strangling me before another officer whispered to him that I was undercover,” Bob said.

Inside the drug world, Bob learned everything about making methamphetemine. He lived and slept in trailers and abandoned homes that had been turned into meth labs. He sold the final product and also P2P – an ingredient used in old school methamphetamine, often made by biker gangs. He got so used to the chemical aroma of meth fumes, he didn't smell them anymore. A dealer stepped into his car one day and said, “I smell crank.” Turns out, Bob's cowboy boots were soaked with chemicals from making meth.

“I was in three labs cooking,” he said. “I had the head chemist from the Franklin Mint in one lab. Bad guys taught me how to cook.”

He said his best informants were prostitutes.

“You start locking up the little ones, and you go up the ladder. One prostitute gave up her hair stylist for $20,” he said.

He recalls his biggest drug deal was for about $1 million, done out of a burned-out house in Camden.

Heart issues gave him a medical discharge from state police. “I loved it. I'd still be doing it, if I could,” he said.

The jury is still out whether years of inhaling meth fumes damaged his health, but Bob's not worried. “Who knows,” he says with a nonplussed shrug.

Tucked away in his wallet, Bob carries around laminated photos from his undercover days that he proudly displays.

“One guy told me once, 'I'm hot,'” he said. “I said what are you talking about there's a foot of snow out there. And he said the state police are looking for me but they're assholes and they don't know where I'm at.”

He cracks up laughing. “You see why I loved it. I got like a thousand of them stories.”

In his five years of undercover, he never arrested anyone but figures his undercover work locked up about 150 people.

Enough that Joan didn't want him to mention any names for fear of retaliation.

“We don't want to have them looking for him,” she said.

She's waited 60 years to find him again, and doesn't want to lose him this time.

No more undercover

In 1987, newly retired Bob moved to Florida and did something he always wanted to do: He bought a farm with horses, pot-bellied pigs and chickens.

“My dream in life was to own a farm. I can say I lived my dream,” he said.

He was there six years working maintenance for a theme park before moving back to central New Jersey. He worked for a hotel chain for a few years and then moved to Rehoboth Beach to work maintenance at Sea Air. He officially retired two years ago and now lives off Route 1 near Lewes.

Over the decades, the couple moved on with their lives, but their life experience parallels were uncanny. Both had children during their first marriages, and on the quirkier side, both had pet racoons and drove 1963 Thunderbirds.

In 1974, Bob looked for Joan in her New Jersey town, but she had divorced her first husband and already moved. In 1976, Joan said she called him on Valentine's Day.

“I was thinking about him. I called him, and he said he's getting married today. I congratulated him and that was it,” she said.

A year later she married a man with whom she remained married until he died in 2016.

During that time, Joan said she would visit her son in New Jersey, and she had no idea Bob worked nearby. “I would be at my son's house, but I would never see his truck a block or so away,” she said.

Bob kept all her pictures and remembered her fondly.

“We always seemed to be missing each other,” Bob said. “She disappeared, and we didn't see each other.”

A new chapter

In 2011, Joan said she had open heart surgery that almost ended it all. But her heart had a different idea.

“I had an aneurysm that burst. The doctor said he didn't know how I survived,” she said. “I shouldn't be here.”

The surgery took its toll on the active woman. She lost weight that she is still trying to gain back. Caring for her second husband until his death, she said, she never got a chance to fully recover. “It was physically exhausting,” she said.

But there was still someone she wanted to see.

“I just wanted to know how he was. I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to hear his voice,” she said.

Google searches turned up nothing, but she was only looking in New Jersey, not his new home in Delaware.

“This time I prayed and asked the Lord to help me find him,” she said.

And it worked.

A Google search in February turned up an ancestry page that showed Bob's parents in their youth. “That's how I remembered them,” she said. “If it had a more current picture, I would not have recognized them.”

The trail continued to Bob's son, Bobby, and a few texts later she was again in touch with Bob.

“The minute I heard his voice it was like there was no 60 years,” she said. “It was so wonderful just hearing his voice.”

After six days of catching up a lifetime of memories, Bob asked her to marry him.

“She was my first true and only love. I had other marriages but never had a true love for them. I loved them but never had the kind of love I have for Joan,” he said. “I thought about her all the time.”

On June 2, the couple walked into Georgetown's Justice of the Peace office, defying a lifetime of twists that kept them apart. They walked out married as fate seemed to destine.

Family members joined them for a small ceremony in Georgetown. The newlyweds still have some catching up to do. They even have a baby girl, Chrissy, an 8-year-old Papillon dog.

And they couldn't be happier.

“I loved him so much. There was a place in my heart where he was my entire life,” Joan said. “No one, nowhere has been able to give me that feeling that I feel when I am with him.”

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