Last Saturday, as one woman put it, eight couples representing “400 years of marriage” circled up in a Fresno living room.
As a 20-something single girl, I stood in awe at these people, happily joking and chatting as if this was an old-school hangout at Fresno Pacific University (then Pacific College), where the longtime friends attended college together.
They gathered to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversaries. All were married between April and August of 1965.
I discovered they have a lot in common. All are between the ages of 70 and 72. Five couples still live in the area, in either Fresno or Clovis. And most were in choir together at their Christian college.
“We are all Christians and we understand the foundation of marriage is God,” said Gene Sperling, associate pastor of New Hope Community Church in Clovis. “Our commitment is to one another but also to Him.”
Roy Klassen, an adjunct professor at Fresno Pacific, joked, “That’s really all you have to write. That really is the only reason.”
But jokes aside, the couples were willing— and very able — to share some other marital pointers, accompanied by a diverse set of stories about meeting their significant other.
After learning that half the group worked as teachers, I thought, “Perfect.” With notebook in hand, I listened attentively as their willing student.
Many roads to matrimony
Each love story started a little different.
There was that love-at-first-sight meeting: Lloyd Gardner, the new boy in class, awestruck by Mary as she walked in with wet hair after a mandatory shower following P.E. Spotting the dashing Lloyd, Mary was mortified by her wet locks. But he was enchanted.
And the not-quite-love-at-first-sight encounter: Klassen, who was working in maintenance at the college, approached by Paula, who just wanted a ladder so she could hang dorm decorations.
An ‘OK’: Judy Neufeld — at first disgusted by a question about going on a blind date — later agreeing to go to a dance with Paul after he timidly asked her.
And a very good dare: Gary Schmidt accepting his buddies’ challenge to ask out Lois, who he took to the county fair.
There was that helpful guy who made his move: Robert Friesen driving Carol up to a spot overlooking the city after helping her hang campaign posters around campus.
The childhood sweethearts — Galen and Jonell Harms, and Garth and Tammy Schmidt — who met in high school through mutual friends and church youth group.
And a movie musical-like beginning: Sperling calling out, “Hey you, can you sing?” to Geri as she walked across the student lounge. He was eager to make his quartet’s four-part harmony sound better and Geri graciously added her voice.
Reflecting on that meeting, Gene said playfully, in an extra low voice, “And we’ve been making wonderful music together ever since.”
Secrets to marriage?
So how do people keep their matrimonial music playing sweetly?
Galen and Jonell Harms recently answered this question for a young, newly-engaged couple at their church.
“Jonell says, ‘Forgive,’” Galen recalled. “Forgive and forgive and forgive.’ … Then it was my turn, and I said, ‘Listen. Listen, listen, listen to the stuff that’s not being said.’”
Love nowadays comes with a different set of challenges, Gary Schmidt said.
When courting Lois, he said, “We didn’t have any Facebook distractions or cell phone distractions, all the technology that diverts people’s attention away from truly focusing on who one another is.”
Lloyd and Mary Gardner said when they got married, they didn’t know what the word “divorce” meant.
“A lot of people, when they have problems, they don’t realize that if they sit and work them out, the marriage will be stronger and it will last 50, 60 or 70 years and you’ll be better for working it out,” Mary said.
And don’t rush into matrimony, Lloyd said.
“Mary and I knew each other for five years, probably more, so when we decided to finally get married, we knew that we were right for each other and that it was going to last.”
The Clovis couple also have a date night every Friday.
“Don’t just let the honeymoon go for a week,” Lloyd said. “Let it go for 50 years.”
Geri Sperling said, “Learn to say, ‘Yes dear.”
“In several languages,” her husband added with a smile.
Lois Schmidt quoted a woman who recently celebrated her 65th wedding anniversary, who said, “Well, you don’t register everything you see, and you don’t actually hear everything you really hear, and you don’t say everything you want to say.”
Tammy Schmidt shared three pillars: Understanding, support and love.
Be patient and laugh a lot, added Roy and Paula Klassen.
And have fun together, Robert Friesen said.
But through all the insightful advice, nothing was as convincing or as heartening as one look I saw exchanged between Lloyd and Mary Gardner.
As I admired their wedding photo, Lloyd said, “She’s still beautiful.” And they smiled at each other — smiles I have no words for — for a beautiful moment.
It was the confirmation I was waiting for. Not only can people be married for half a century, love can last that long, too.