Above: A photograph from 1982 shows Wayne Easley next to his new wife, Sandra Easley, minutes after they were married in Mosquito Park that same year.
By William Smith
Sometimes, love and fate overlap, defying star-crossed random chance.
When Wayne Easley rescued his wife Sandy from the raging Skunk River in 1982, he had no romantic intent in mind. Neither did she.
“We loved each other very much,” Wayne said.
No amount of intervening circumstances could keep them apart. Wayne lost Sandy to cancer in August 2021 and has thought about her every day since. She was his world.
“I took care of Sandy for that seven, eight years doing her cancer therapy and treatments, all that kind of stuff,” Wayne said, wiping tears from his eyes.
A native of Memphis, Tenn., who eventually ended up in Burlington and worked at General Electric, Wayne had known Sandy and her sisters since they were young. He and his first wife were friends with Sandy’s oldest sister.
Wayne and his first wife were long divorced by the time Wayne reconnected with Sandy and her family in 1982.
Then disaster struck.
Sandy, her boyfriend-at-the-time, her sister, and her sister’s husband were canoeing down the Skunk River by Oakland Mills to celebrate 1982’s Fourth of July holiday.
Easley and his friends were camping downriver, and he was eagerly awaiting the canoe trip to reach their campsite.
“I sat on the bank for about four-and-a-half hours waiting for them,” he said. “I could see the bridge crossing over the Skunk River. They were on the far side of the river, and I started waving.”
Upon seeing Wayne on the river bank, the canoe riders started paddling toward shore. But the river was up, the current was swift, and the canoe tipped over.
Wayne immediately went into a controlled panic.
“‘Oh my God!’ I yelled at my friends. The canoe tipped over,’ ” Easley said, reliving the incident. “I went running from one spot to another. I went over to this campsite and there were some people camping around there. And I asked if they had a rope.”
One of the campers handed Wayne a tangled, nylon ski rope.
“I threw the rope and pulled Carlotta (Sandy’s sister) to the shore,” he said. “I don’t know how many people were behind me, but there were a lot of people. I pulled, and people helped me.”
Carlotta told Wayne she wasn’t a strong swimmer and pleaded with him to rescue the others. The stiff current would be a threat to anyone who entered the water.
So Wayne jumped in.
“I took the rope and went straight out for her (Sandy). I don’t know how I did it. To this day, I don’t know how I did it, but I swam out to her. And when I got to her, I got her feet from underneath the branches and I tied the rope on her. They pulled her to shore,” he said.
Wayne and Rusty Maddox, who was 18 at the time (Wayne was 34), managed to rescue everyone. They were later recognized by the Des Moines County Conservation Board for their life-saving efforts, and each of them received a letter from the executive director, Jeff Bergman.
“Many times a person will not endanger their own lives to save someone else who is in danger,” the letter reads.
“Fortunately, you were concerned about the other person and acted with an unselfish impulse.”
Easley wasn’t thinking of accolades while clinging to a tree in the middle of the Skunk River. He just wanted to get pulled back to shore without injury.
“I said, ‘Man, something’s going to hit me in the back of the head and I’m going to drown,’” Easley said.
By the time Easley made it to shore, everyone involved was exhausted and brimming with adrenaline. On the spur of the moment, Easley kissed Sandy, right in front of her then-boyfriend.
“He left. That was his mistake,” Easley said.
Sandy hung out with Easley and his friends that night, but she had a life in Dubuque to get back to. She eventually married the man she was canoeing with, though they divorced roughly six years later.
Sandy still lived in Dubuque, and Wayne lived in southeast Iowa. After her marriage ended, Sandy and Wayne became close friends – then something more. He still remembers the first time he knocked on her door.
“Oh my gosh. When Sandy came to the door, she was so happy to see me. So happy,” he said.
As their relationship blossomed, Wayne kept threatening to go get her and bring her back as his wife. Eventually, he did just that.
“I helped her pack everything. We moved to Burlington pulling this boat behind my car,” he said.
The two would regularly eat breakfast at the Hy-Vee on Angular Street, staring at a photograph of Mosquito Park that hung on the wall.
“We thought it would be a nice place to get married. So we got married there,” Wayne said.
“We got married the same day Burt Reynolds and Lonnie Anderson got married — April 29, 1988.”
It was the happiest day of Easley’s life. He openly wept as he described carrying his new wife across the threshold of their home.
Sandy went on to become the structural supervisor for Hope Haven and loved collecting angel figurines. She had an entire “angel room” dedicated to her passion.
But there was only one living angel in the Easley household. And Wayne misses her terribly.
“She was a very special lady,” he said.