On a cold, gray day on Halloween eve in 2002, I watched as Bambi Venetucci comforted her husband, legendary pumpkin farmer Nick Venetucci. He was sitting at their kitchen table at the family farm in Security, quietly crying as he confronted the end of their traditional pumpkin giveaway.

The great drought of 2002 had ruined Venetucci's pumpkin crop and, it seemed, broken his spirit. As he turned his head and wiped his eyes, Bambi stood next to him, hands on his shoulders, supporting him just as she had been for most of the previous 50 years or so.

I recalled that scene Sunday as I read Bambi's obituary.

News of her Jan. 15 death at age 85 brought back memories of a spectacular woman who overcame blindness to become an acclaimed teacher and one half of one of the sweetest love stories I've ever known.

Her life would have been remarkable even if she'd never met and fallen in love with Nick. I learned the details in her 1996 autobiography, "Dammi La Mano - Give Me Your Hand."

In it, she told how her parents left their village in Italy after World War I to escape poverty. They relocated in Frederick, north of Denver, to mine coal and farm potatoes and beans. That's where Bambi was born in 1929 with a severe visual impairment.

In 1936, when Bambi was 7, her family took her to live at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind in Colorado Springs. It was a jarring transition from the warm cottage filled with a loving family to life in a cold, sterile, three-story boarding house with 20 other girls, ages 6 to 19, starved for love.

In Colorado Springs, she had to overcome her homesickness and adapt to the school's strict, almost military-style discipline to learn independent living.

Upon graduation in 1946, she went to a Denver rehabilitation center where she learned to operate a vending stand in a federal building. But she wanted more. She wanted to teach blind children.

In 1950, she became the first blind student at the University of Colorado at Boulder and its campus of 9,000 students.

Another life change came during her junior year when her goal required her to transfer to a college in San Francisco. There, she earned her degree even as her limited vision began to erode. She returned to Colorado and, in 1954, took a teaching job back at the School for the Deaf and the Blind in Colorado Springs.

She thrived in the classroom, relaying all her cosmopolitan experiences, and in 1983, she was honored as the Colorado Teacher of the Year.

I was particularly moved at how Bambi came to view blindness as a gift.

"Yes, a gift disguised - but once recognized, it has brought love, joy and confidence."

Pretty spectacular, don't you think?

And that isn't the half of it. I haven't touched on the love story.

That story started in 1957, when Bambi met Nick, who went to the same Catholic church she attended: 
St. Mary's Cathedral.

Nick was living on the family farm in Security, caring for his parents and raising vegetables.

In many ways, they were a perfect match - both children of Italian immigrants who mined coal and farmed.

Nick had answered the phone when Bambi called the farm trying to reach her friend, Nick's sister Mary Ann. Nick was intrigued by Bambi's voice and dropped a gift basket of fresh vegetables by her apartment. That led to a visit, a date and a 27-year courtship.

In her book, Bambi described how Nick didn't realize she was blind and that she feared she scared him off when she revealed her condition. It did not.

Among the episodes in their romance, she recalled the exhilaration of driving when Nick took her to the edge of town and put her behind the wheel of his car. She would regularly drive, with Nick telling her when to stop and turn and to avoid traffic. She even fooled a police officer who stopped the couple one evening.

Finally, in December 1984, the couple were married and Bambi became a full partner in the farm and in Nick's amazing annual pumpkin giveaway. Every summer for 50 years, Nick would raise pumpkins in a 60-acre patch. And every fall, Bambi and Nick would open their fields to upwards of 50,000 children and let them each pick a pumpkin. For free.

She scheduled the buses of schoolchildren as Nick shepherded them around the fields.

But the fall of 2002 was different. Drought had ruined the crop, and there would be no giveaway. And as I sat at the kitchen table with the couple, it dawned on Nick that he might never again experience the joy of children running around the farm, gleefully picking pumpkins.

It was particularly painful because the children were more than just visitors. They were the couple's children. The family they never had.

So he wept. And Bambi comforted him.

There would be more heartbreak as Nick died on Sept. 7, 2004, before the unveiling of a bronze statue created in his honor.

A few weeks later, on 
Oct. 12, 2004, I was outside the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, where the statue was erected, and witnessed as Bambi laid her hands on the bronze for the first time.

It was Bambi's turn to cry as she caressed the smiling face on the statue. Then she composed herself and resumed tracing the lines of the statue with her hands.

"It's him," Bambi said, nodding for emphasis. "Those hands are his hands. So strong.

"And his face. The ripple in his smile. It's him."

Bambi ran her hands over the lump of bronze where Nick's shirt was pulling out of his trousers. And she pressed her hands over the handkerchief sculpted by artist Fred Darpino in Nick's back pocket. She felt the faces of the three children and the pumpkins that surround the farmer.

But Bambi kept coming back to the statue's hands.

"Aren't those hands something?" she said. "Those big, strong, wonderful hands were the first thing I noticed about him when we met."

I like to think Bambi is holding Nick's hands again, joyfully driving around the heavens and watching as children run gleefully through their pumpkin patch.

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blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets.

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