Through their long marriage, Karen and John Kocourek have always stood side by side, helping each other.
First, it was when John taught high school and helped put Karen through college.
Karen then helped John when she started her sales career, and supported him when he returned to school and earned a law degree.
They are still side by side, after four decades of marriage, as John fights cancer.
Their history together started when she was 13 and he was 16, and both were taking gymnastic classes in the late 1960s at South Omaha Sokol Hall.
She was impressed with his gymnastic skills and how he’d take the time to help younger kids improve. She also liked that he was smart, and knew he got good grades.
When Karen was 15, she noticed John in a different way. She thought he was cute and liked his sense of humor.
He liked her big smile and outgoing personality. She always seemed to be laughing with her friends and asking people how they were doing.
They had a lot in common, including their Czech heritage. They and their families spent a lot of time at Sokol Hall, attending polka dances and chicken dinners.
Karen will never forget the gift John gave her just before Christmas during her sophomore year at Omaha South High School.
It was a wooden jewelry box, with ballet dancers painted on the front. Karen loved ballet, and she thought the jewelry box was beautiful.
By her junior year in high school, she and John were dating regularly.
John was already attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on a gymnastics scholarship.
Karen joined John at UNL in 1972 after graduating from high school, and they married March 10, 1973, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Omaha.
After graduating from UNL in 1973, John taught government and coached gymnastics at Omaha Central High for six years, before starting law school at Creighton University in 1979.
The couple now live in Council Bluffs, and John has been practicing law there and in Omaha for more than 30 years. Karen retired three years ago after a 30-year career in pharmaceutical sales.
They have two grown children, Katrinka and Johnny, and in March joined family and friends in Chicago to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.
Soon after, following weeks of fatigue and other symptoms, John was diagnosed with lymphoma.
He went through six months of chemotherapy, and next month will undergo a stem cell transplant.
Karen joined him for all his chemo treatments, accompanies him to doctor appointments, keeps track of his daily medications and does all she can to make him healthy again.
John said Karen’s help is nothing new in their marriage, and that’s why it’s still strong.
“That’s what makes it work,’’ he said. “You have to be there for one another.”