“I prayed for love one lonely night;
a prayer sincere, serene.
An hour later as I stood in line,
I turned and faced a dream.
As eyes met and hands touched,
my thanks I sent to One above;
For in that very instant, I knew I’d met my love.” –S.L. Brown, “It Started on a Prayer”
It may read as the stuff of fairytales, but the poem above is, in fact, real life – Sandy Brown, a Buffalo native, wrote the above sonnet in remembrance of the night she fell in love with Phil Brown, who would become her husband seven short months after meeting.
It wasn’t her first interaction with Phil, though. Their paths had crossed before, in South America, aboard a foreboding American Naval ship; when things were quite different in not only the world, but in their own lives.
A generation later, Sandy and Phil’s daughter shares their story, and the romance of her own.
Sandy and Phil
Linda Vollbrecht is all smiles when she greets you, her eyes twinkling with exuberant cheerfulness and genuine kindness. You’d never know she struggles with painful arthritis, until she quietly apologizes for her easy pace.
Almost immediately after introducing herself and taking a seat, she offers a stack of folded papers, all varying in size, shape, and wear. Some are yellowed and frayed, others are beginning to discolor around the edges; there are even a few that have fading penmanship. She shuffles through them a moment, chatting absently about the weather, until she extends what appears to be the oldest paper of the pile.
“This is where it started,” she comments with a sad smile. “This is what my mother wrote about meeting my father face-to-face for the first time.”
When you read it, you get goose-bumps and a swell of whimsical joy in your chest. Linda doesn’t even have to gaze down at the paper to know what it says – she has it practically memorized, folding the page over neatly as you hand it back.
“She was such a gripping poet,” Linda shares. “She wrote tons of these sonnets; I have so many of the notes she shared with my dad over the years. Theirs was such a beautiful marriage.”
It’s no surprise, considering how Sandy and Phil Brown met.
Linda Vollbrecht is not an unfamiliar face to Buffalo. Growing up in the area, Linda married her high school sweetheart, Rodney, and the pair spent most of their marriage in Wright County, where they raised their three children, whom to this day, are all within reasonable driving distance.
It seems like living life in Wright County is a generational trait, because Linda’s parents both resided in Buffalo for most of their married life, too – well, after a lot of travel and what has been known as one of the most fairytale falling-in-love stories, that is.
Phil Brown, Linda’s father, grew up in Buffalo his entire life. Sandy, her mother, was a “Navy brat,” as she explained, and grew up bouncing around not only the United States, but also abroad.
Their first meeting was not really “anything to scream about,” Linda shared. Stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba with her Navy father, Sandy was part of a dancing kick line in 1955, where her group would board all of the naval ships and perform for sailors and Navy men serving on board. They were a big hit, Linda explained.
“Imagine being a teenager in the fifties, surrounded on a ship full of America’s strapping young men serving in the Navy,” Linda’s smile is wide as she shakes her head at the memory of her mother’s explanation. “Mom said there was no better time to be alive as a young woman.”
Of course, Phil had stood out then aboard one of the vessels. However, the two never really got around to introductions at sea – their “getting-to-know-one-another” stage would come a few years later, in Norfolk, Virginia, when Phil was exiting the Navy and beginning his life as a man outside of the service.
The delightfully-fateful day was March 9, 1955, and Phil and his best friend were fresh off the water and out of service to the Navy. Boarding a bus with no real destination in mind, Phil’s friend had asked him where exactly they were getting off, and where they were going to eat for their first night as “free men.”
But, Phil had been too transfixed with the all-too-familiar figure three rows ahead; Sandy, on the same bus, had seated herself on their side of the bus, unknowingly. Phil, in answering his friend’s question, had told him squarely:
“I’m getting off wherever she’s off.” And that was it – they got off at a roller-skating rink, and spent the entire night skating and talking and dancing to old tunes of the 1950s.
“Really, it was fate, plain and simple,” Linda explained. “That night my mother wrote this poem, ‘It Started on a Prayer.’ It was her take on the night, and she always told me she knew she was going to marry my dad as soon as he came up and introduced himself.”
“Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers was the first song Sandy and Phil danced to on March 9, 1955. It must’ve worked, because that tune would remain the couple’s signature song throughout the entirety of their marriage, and always inspired a round of dancing each time it would come around. By October 29, 1955, only seven months after their first meeting in Virginia, Sandy and Phil said their vows and were married, making their home in Buffalo.
Linda remembers growing up on Second Avenue Northwest, which was her childhood home. With family all around the area, she was always within walking distance to her grandparents and cousins, who would eventually come to stay with the family for five years.
Phil, a man of many talents, spent a lot of his years in Buffalo driving a bus for River Rider Bus Company. “Everyone loved him,” Linda said. “He also owned his own towing company for awhile, but never made any money, because in those days no one could afford to pay anyone outside of livestock or barters. He was just a good soul and never took anything from anyone who couldn’t afford it.”
It seemed everyone in Buffalo knew Phil – even those out of state, too. “If we’d go to Wyoming or travel anywhere, someone always seemed to know who my dad was. It was crazy how likable he was! Both my folks were stand up people that everyone seemed to love.”
Her folks’ relationship wasn’t the only one of storybooks. Linda herself married her highschool sweetheart, Rodney Vollbrecht. She remembers sitting in the Buffalo High School Biology Lab in 1972, and seeing Rod for the first time, where she “fell head over heels,” as she shared.
“I told my best friend, ‘Man, he’s really cute. I’m going to marry him someday.’ As a teenager, you have no idea what life is about, but I knew I was going to marry Rod – and I did!”
They were married in November of 1976. Linda and Rod were together for a total of 27 years. Rod, another well-known name in the community, worked for Monticello Phone Company, and was a volunteer firefighter. He also was an avid fisherman, and didn’t ever hesitate to take time to go out on the lake.
So was the case in June 1999, where Rod was on his way to a fishing spot in his Chevy Nova, and was killed by a drunk driver. Linda shared that he was killed instantly, and that he hadn’t suffered any pain from the accident.
“It was so difficult,” Linda explained. “And it still is, as we approach the day of the his death in June. My kids took it very hard, even as teenagers. We ended up spending some time in Wyoming to grieve; I spent two years there.”
Rod’s funeral was so well-attended; they had to move arrangements to one of the churches nearby to accommodate the many firefighters, law enforcement officers, and other community members who attended. The court case had to also be moved into the biggest court rooms available, to likewise accommodate attendance.
“Rod was super special,” Linda said. “I couldn’t imagine being married to a better man. Everyone said our marriage was so romantic and genuine, and that they always hoped to have relationships like ours. I attribute that to my folks’ relationship, and watching them grow old together, still in love like it was the first day they’d met.”
Linda still has the many notes her father left her throughout the years; reminders that she was always loved, even through his battle with dementia. And, Rod’s memory is still strong, even in the days when the pain is the greatest. Sandy’s poems are always a source of inspiration and comfort. Phil passed away in 2013, and Sandy followed in 2017.
From the loss of her husband and parents, Linda is still encouraged, and her eyes still sparkle with exuberant joy, even in the moments of sharing her pain. “You really have to know what you have,” she said. “It doesn’t last forever. You need to spend time with the people you love; make those lasting relationships. Be romantic. Make your love the love of fairytale stories, because it won’t always be forever. That is what’s important – everyone needs to realize that.”
Linda is residing in Big Lake, and all of her children – and grandkids – are close by their grandma.