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The Story of Us: 6 Centre County couples married for decades share secrets to long-lasting love

by on February 01, 2019 10:19 AM

As of late last year, the U.S. divorce rate was 39 percent. Meanwhile, nearly a fifth of Americans are currently considering divorce, according to a 2017 study from legal resource Avvo. It’s no wonder then that some members of younger generations might have a less than optimistic outlook on love or marriage.

So, when you find a couple that’s been together decades, even above and beyond their diamond anniversary (60 years), it begs the question – what’s your secret?

Resoundingly, when talking with couples in long-lasting relationships around the Centre County area, the answers are much the same: work hard at your marriage, stay dedicated to the relationship, be supportive, be selfless, realize that your spouse is not perfect and that’s OK.

‘Family ties’

“Part of it is the ability to talk about things, the ability to forgive and to laugh, to say, ‘Gee, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that,’” says Elaine Schuckers.

She and her husband, Dave, have been married 58 years. The two met in high school and then started dating when Dave came back from college to visit. “Our first date was a football game and a burger and a soda.”

The two moved to State College in 1963 for Dave’s position at Penn State, where he retired as the assistant to the president for governmental affairs.

They settled into the community, bought some property, and built two homes in the Waddle-Julian area, one for Dave and Elaine and one for Dave’s parents. The family did largely all the work themselves, and the couple says the project is a testament to their strong familial ties – another thing that they feel positively contributed to their decades of marriage.

“I think having strong family ties really helps. My parents just adored Dave and I just loved his parents,” says Elaine. "They were like my own parents.”

‘Like one person really’

Family is a sentiment echoed by Herb and Nancy Graves of State College, married 69 years. The two met at Penn State, through their respective fraternity and sorority. Herb and Nancy would meet daily to chat, and occasionally so Herb could accompany Nancy to the Rathskeller. (“As a girl, you didn’t go in alone,” explains Nancy.) They frequently fixed each other up on dates, until, one night, Nancy says Herb walked her home and left her with a kiss at the door.

It was Nancy’s mother, however, who immediately predicted the two would end up together.

“The first day [my mother] met him she told me, ‘Now, he’s the man for you.’ We were at [my] home. … He went in and she was making bean soup. [First] we were outside and there were a bunch of people there. The football players from Penn State [came over]. Herb went in and started stirring my mother’s bean soup and that did it. She said to me that night that he was the man for me,” Nancy says.

“I wanted to get away from all these guys who had just stopped to say hello to Nancy. So I left the room and went out into the kitchen and stirred the soup,” Herb chimes in, laughing.

“And got my mother’s attention,” Nancy agrees.

The two would go on to get married, have their first child of four within 10 months, and begin moving around the country for Herb’s work in engineering, even living in Puerto Rico for several years. They acknowledge all this movement made for some stressful conditions.

“We had hard times in life and hard times between us. Making our marriage work sometimes under strained, stressful conditions, it’s easy for us to see why so many people get divorced. We had days where we didn’t talk to each other, but somehow we worked through it. Over the years, things just got better and better and better,” Herb says. “We knew we wanted to work it out when we had problems. Sometimes it took time to do it.

“We’re so close now, it’s sort of like one person really.”

‘A whole stack of letters’

Any married couple that’s moved around a bit knows the stresses that come with such an undertaking, including Lloyd and Marilyn Niemann, married nearly 65 years. The two grew up together in Lincoln, Nebraska, before moving more than half a dozen times and finally ending up in State College, where they’ve remained for the last 53 years.

“I sat behind him in high school in study hall and we never ever said one word to each other all that time,” Marilyn notes.

“He went to the Merchant Marine Academy in New York after he graduated from high school. I was at the University of Nebraska. His cousin was my roommate,” she says, explaining the story of their later, more official meeting during Lloyd’s trip to visit his cousin. “I was going over to the student union at night and he says, ‘Oh, I’ll walk along with you because my car is on the way.’ His car was right [out front] and I knew [it]. He … asked me to go out to a dinner dance the next night. … My goodness, when it came time to dance, he swirled me around on the floor like I couldn’t believe. That’s how it all started.

“He left and I thought, I’ll probably never hear from him again. I came home from class a few days later and there was a whole stack of letters there that he had written every day since he left.”

The two were married two years later in a large wedding and then began their journey around the states, “picking up some children along the way,” Lloyd adds.

As they acquired more belongings and more children, the moving was a stressful challenge, but he says they always were able to recognize the reality of their situation and adjust, with a little bit of love and companionship.

‘We just knew’

The theme of these successful couples trotting around the country and the globe continues with Harry and Martina Campbell of State College, married 59 years. Martina moved all the way from Germany, following Harry through his military career.

“We met right in front of my house,” says Martina, who was then living with her family in East Berlin. “There was a bar right on the corner which seemed to be the place for the American soldiers to hang out. Those American boys didn’t know how to handle [their] drink; they really got drunk and it was a noisy — bad place to be. One day, one of the soldiers ran into my father’s three-wheeler, which was our only vehicle, and my father needed it for delivering distilled water. The next [thing] we knew, a German police officer and an American police officer came to the house to take care of [it].”

That American was Harry.

After the official business was over, Martina says Harry just keep returning, gaining the approval of not only her little brother and her very particular dog, but her parents as well.

Two years later, the two were engaged and then married in 1959 before moving to the United States. Martina notes that Harry never “officially” proposed; “we just knew,” she says.

Following the marriage, the two moved around a lot, but Martina doesn’t view this as a big challenge in their marriage.

“We have always been friends right from the beginning!” she says. “We’ve never had fights; we have some disagreements, but we talk about them and work it out.”

Family also played a large role in the Campbells’ marriage. Martina says that Harry’s parents welcomed her with open arms and taught her everything about life in America. She also says that her parents, who were very happily married, set an example for her early on.

A shared faith

Along with the good qualities many of the couples reference as the key to a long-lasting marriage, it seems a good dose of faith doesn’t hurt either.

Drew and Dianna Fenstermacher, for example, met while both on mission trips to Lima, Peru. Drew was teaching at a school for missionary children, while Dianna was participating in a six-week summer program through her college.

“We met the first night Dianna was there at a get-acquainted event for the missionaries and summer missions team. We sat beside each other in the back of a VW bug on the way to the get-together!”

When Dianna left Peru and Drew stayed behind, they kept in touch, writing weekly letters for the next six months. After Drew moved back to the States, he popped the question a week later and they were married in seven months.

Drew, now pastor of Faith Baptist Church in State College, notes that he still remembers “how beautiful Dianna was” when he saw her in her flowing wedding gown at the entrance to the sanctuary; it took his breath away and he says he is “still recovering 37 years later.”

Not only did their shared faith bring them together, but it’s remained a crucial part of their relationship over the decades. They say some of the most rewarding parts of their marriage have been “seeing God's faithful, loving care for us; growing in our friendship; having children (and grandchildren) and watching them walk with God as they mature; [and] having the privilege of being a pastor and wife team of a loving church family for over 30 years.”

They feel “being committed to honor the Lord with our marriage and to trust in His purpose for our marriage” was one of the primary things that made their long marriage possible. Their top advice for younger married couples is to “be committed to the Lord first and foremost; seek ways to honor your spouse; love your family; pray together; have fun together; serve others together; be part of a local church family together; and spend time with and learn from older married couples.”

Patience, kindness, perseverance

Holly and Ed Ketz’s advice from their 45-year marriage is similar, with a stress on Christ-like love.

“By love, I’m not referring to the kind of love that’s portrayed on television or the movie screens. I’m talking about the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13. If you really look at the chapter … it talks about patience, kindness, not keeping a record of wrongs, persevering, bearing all things,” Holly says.

The two are proof that even marriages that begin under the most stressful circumstances can flourish with the right outlook and attitude.

Holly tells the now-charming story of their wedding: “We wanted to get married at Virginia Tech at the War Memorial Chapel and finances were very tight because I was paying for the wedding myself. I had brought my sewing machine from home in order to make my own wedding dress. I had to be out of the dorms by graduation day, and we could not afford a motel room, so we booked the wedding for graduation day. Because the War Memorial was a very popular place to get married, they were all booked until 9 p.m. that night. We booked it for 9 p.m. My mom came from Ohio for the wedding, but because it was also graduation day, she couldn’t get a local motel and had to stay an hour away in Roanoke, Virginia.

"I ended up missing my graduation that morning … because I had to move out of the dorms that morning, and finish making my wedding gown, and then go with my mom to the motel in Roanoke. As it turned out, I still had not sewn the hooks onto the train of my wedding gown by the time we had to drive back to Blacksburg for the wedding. I was sewing them on in the car as we were coming to the chapel. I also had curlers in my hair. We arrived at the chapel [around] 9:10 p.m., curlers in hair, dress not completely done, and I came in seeing a guest or two as I arrived. Time was of the essence, since weddings were booked about every hour at the chapel. Someone had pins, and we pinned the train to the dress and the wedding began. … I look exhausted. Ed borrowed a tux from his dad, and looked like a penguin. But that was our start.”

The couple would go on to face a few difficult, lean years, living in Virginia and Connecticut before making their way to Centre County. Through tight budgets and a colicky baby, a broken leg and ill parent, the couple has leaned on each other, and on their faith overall.

With all these couples finding their way together and their ways through life differently, it’s certain there’s no one roadmap to love, but one thing is definitely for sure: no matter how you get there, a long-lasting marriage is well worth the effort.

Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.

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