Love’s lasting bloom
Area couples reflect on their enduring romances
From the campgrounds 74 years ago in Manhattan, to their room today at Eudora Nursing Center, Walter "Smitty" Smith and May Fern Smith have stayed together.
They define the success of their long-lasting marriage with a few simple values.
"Dependability," Mae said. "You've got to be able to depend on a person."
The Smiths first met in 1932. Both were heavily involved in Leavenworth County 4-H programs. And both participated in the same 4-H roundup in Manhattan.
A friend introduced them, and the rest is history.
"It was a new experience," Smitty said.
The 93-year-old couple still remembers details from their time at camp. At one point, attendees elected Smitty camp mayor, Mae said.
He said he still isn't sure why they chose him.
When the camp finished, the couple hit their first milestone. It came time for Mae to decide whether or not she was going to ride home with Smitty.
"That was 'going out' then," he said.
Mae accepted the ride home with Smitty -- in his father's Dodge touring car. That was the start of their courtship.
Mae remembered dates consisting of trips to the movies, dances and visiting with friends.
Smitty remembered the freedom he felt in being allowed to use his father's car. It gave him the chance to drive the 22 miles to Mae's family's farm any time he felt.
"I did that any time of day or any time of night I took a notion," Smitty said.
The courtship lasted two years, until one day Smitty drove over and picked Mae up. He stopped his car in the middle of the road and asked her to marry him.
"I was thrilled," Mae said. "I was ready to give up on him."
The couple married Sept. 9, 1935.
In their 71 years together, the couple survived the Great Depression, wars and raised three children -- Nancy, Elaine and Dwight.
Throughout the years, the couple also shared hobbies. Mae grew flowers and tended the garden. Smitty mowed the lawn.
The couple also traveled together, Mae said.
And as they looked back on their decades of marriage, Smitty agreed with Mae's summary of what kept them together.
"Taking care of each other," Smitty said.
It's also important to let the other person know if they were doing something wrong, Smitty said.
For richer and poorer
For Carroll and Wilma Smith, it's 70 years and counting. The couple will celebrate their 71st wedding anniversary April 4.
So, what's the recipe for a long-lasting marriage?
"Well, it's just like I always said -- there's a lot of give and a lot of take and a lot of take and a lot of give," Wilma said with a chuckle.
Carroll's eyes twinkle when he looks at his wife, and vice versa. But both readily admit their marriage had its share of challenges.
However Carroll, who is almost 90, gave a quick wink and said, "We still get along -- we still live in the same house."
The 88-year-old Wilma agreed, "In 70 years there's been some ups and downs, but we've never separated."
After more than seven decades of marriage, their love is strong.
Carroll waved his hands in Wilma's direction and said, "She's still the greatest lady that ever lived."
The Smiths grew up on adjoining farms in Kentucky. The farms were large, the homes 1 1/2 miles apart.
And their childhoods weren't the idyllic situations they might have been.
When Wilma was 4, her mother died. Wilma and her sister divided their time with their father in a nearby city and on the farm with their grandfather. Wilma's father remarried, and when her grandfather's health declined, the family moved back to the farm to take care of him.
Meanwhile, when Carroll was 3, his father left.
"He hooked up a horse and buggy and drove out the gate, and we never saw him for 20 years," Carroll said.
He, his older brother and younger sister stayed with their mother on his grandparents' farm.
Carroll attended a one-room school four miles from home, where eventually, he and Wilma would meet.
Though Wilma is crazy about her husband now, when they were younger it was different.
"Not any of us girls liked him," Wilma said, chuckling. "He was a big pest."
The two completed their education at the end of eighth grade. Carroll, who is almost two years older than Wilma, was the first to graduate.
It would be several years before they became interested in each other. That came about at dances -- where folks gathered to square dance to a fiddler's tunes.
"And that's the way we got started going together," the 5-foot 3-inch Wilma said, looking up at her husband, who at 6 feet towers over her.
They married when Wilma was 17, Carroll 19. A friend drove them to Scottsville, Ky., where they were married in a preacher's house. That night they returned to Wilma's grandfather's home where they celebrated with a dance until the wee hours.
"It was about 3 o'clock in the morning before the party all broke up," Wilma said.
When Wilma's grandfather died, she inherited part of his farm. The couple built a house there. Like their neighbors, they had no running water or electricity.
Jobs, and money, were hard to come by.
"There was no jobs to be had," Carroll said. "Those were Depression days. Every once in a while you'd get a day's work with a farmer or something or other."
He said it's difficult today to imagine what it was like during the Depression.
"I worked on the farm down there for a dollar and a half a day," Carroll said. "And that was from sunup to sundown."
Carroll's brother married a woman from the Kansas City area. In 1941, Carroll and Wilma -- and their two young daughters -- went there to visit.
Before they left, Carroll said if he could land a job in Kansas City, they wouldn't be going back to Kentucky.
He found work as a guard at North American Aviation in Fairfax, where B-25 bombers were manufactured.
So they stayed.
"Kansas City has been good to us," she said.
Carroll later forged his career in the structural steel industry, manufacturing parts for farm equipment and heavy trucks in Fairfax. His eighth-grade education didn't hamper his success.
"I wound up owning two companies myself and sold them 15 years ago," Carroll said.
In the mid-1960s, the couple grew tired of living in Kansas City, Kan. They yearned for the wide-open spaces of their childhood memories.
So they looked to the west. They settled on 40 acres between Tonganoxie and Basehor and built the house that they still call home today.
The couple raised their two daughters in Kansas. Nancy Mahany lives in Lenexa and Ann Rumsey lives next door to the Smiths. Nancy was born on Valentine's Day the year after the Smiths married. The couple have six grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.
Carroll is as proud of them as he is of his wife.
He glanced at Wilma, who was dressed neatly, wearing makeup on and looked as if she had just stepped out of a beauty salon.
"She looks like that when she goes to the breakfast table in the mornings," Carroll said.
And Wilma, obviously, is proud of Carroll.
She quipped, "I guess I made something out of him because he wasn't the perfect guy. He and the guys that he ran around with were a little on the wild side."
And did she tame him?
Wilma quickly replied, smiling, "I think I did."
Young love continues through the years
After 65 years of marriage, Vince and Eileen Rieke say their love for each other has continued to grow.
And Vince said for Valentine's Day last year, he finally found the perfect card for his wife, describing how he felt every time he looked at her.
"I see someone who just keeps growing more wonderful, someone I'm proud and grateful to be sharing my life with," it reads.
Vince Rieke and Eileen Swope knew of each other growing up in Shawnee -- their older sisters were friends -- but they didn't really get to know each other until they were 10 and 12, as they went to different schools. Vince attended the Catholic school and Eileen the public school. Then, in an empty lot next to Vince's childhood home, they and the other neighborhood kids started playing baseball.
Eileen's mother also started sending her down to Vince's house to use the Rieke telephone, since they didn't have one of their own. By the time Eileen was 14 and Vince 16, a romance had started to blossom.
"One of the kids got the family car, and we rode around Quivira Lake," Eileen said. "We sat a little too close to each other, I guess you could say."
After that, the couple "just kept going together, and going together, and going together," as Eileen says, with no interest in dating anyone else. Vince ended up changing from his Catholic high school to the public Shawnee Mission Rural High School his senior year, where they walked each other to class before both graduating in 1941.
Vince said by then, he'd known for some time that Eileen was the one for him.
"I decided that when I was 16, as far as I'm concerned," he says.
After high school, Vince worked with Missouri Aviation and then Beech Aircraft in Wichita for several months, but he often drove back to Shawnee to visit Eileen. They were married Jan. 3, 1942, at St. Joseph's Catholic Church. It was a small wedding, partially because Eileen had been raised in the Methodist church and had yet to convert to Catholicism.
After the wedding, they ate at the Green Parrot restaurant near the Plaza, and then they got their wedding photo taken, a photo Vince likes because he says Eileen looks like a young Hedy Lamarr.
The couple lived in Wichita for a time, where they had the first of their nine children. Eileen was ready for a large family, having been one of six children, but Vince, who had just one sister, said he knew he wanted a large family after growing up with the seven siblings of the Lichtenauer family across the street.
"They were always having fun together, and I knew I wanted that," Vince said.
The couple moved back to Vince's family home in Shawnee just before the birth of their second child, as World War II was raging and Vince thought he might be drafted. He joined the Army Air Corps and moved around the country flying B-29s and B-26s while Eileen stayed in Shawnee.
After the war, Vince returned home and eventually entered the business of highway construction, and Eileen had her hands full raising their nine children. In 1951, they built their home on the empty lot where they used to play baseball.
Now the couple has 16 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Five of their children still live in the area, and when all of them came into town for Thanksgiving, the Riekes decided to celebrate their 65th Anniversary a few months early. They still marvel at the idea of their long marriage.
"I never realized I'd get into my 80s, much less to 65 years of marriage," Eileen said.
The couple admits there have been some rough times -- Eileen scoffs at anyone who says they didn't fight much after several years of marriage.
"I've always felt they either didn't have a very good memory, or they lied, because I don't know that two people can live together for any length of time without a difference of opinion," she said, adding jokingly, "Fortunately, he's hard of hearing now, so he doesn't hear my difference of opinion."
They both agree it was love that got them through those times when they had a "difference of opinion."
"It's just the love of one another," Vince said. "We had the same trials and tribulations that everyone else had, but we got through those because of the love."
Don and Ruth Nutt of Baldwin have gone through a lot during their 64 years of marriage, including decades upon decades of Valentine's Days.
They were married Sept. 20, 1942.
"A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then," Don said. "Lotta water. I wouldn't want to go back. Wasn't bad."
"We can't complain," Ruth said.
Of course, back in 1942, much as today, there was a war going on. It was World War II then -- the war in Iraq now.
"I was in (classification) 3A, so I wasn't going to have to go in the military," Don said. "We got married and two weeks later I got a reclassification to 1A and went in the Army.
"It wasn't like today with cell phones and computers to stay in touch," Don said. "I kissed her on the street in Anniston, Alabama, and got on a bus. The next day, we left for overseas. I didn't see her for 21 months."
Those were the two Valentine's Days that the Nutts weren't together. There haven't been any since.
The Nutts are Miami County natives. She's from Osawatomie and he's from Paola. But, they didn't meet back in high school. After graduation, Don had a friend, Charles Schneeberger, who in a roundabout way introduced them.
"Buddy of mine and me double dated," he said. "First time I met her, he had a date with her and had to go to Topeka. He wondered if I'd keep his date for him."
"He did," she said.
That was almost 70 years ago. The Nutts moved to Baldwin in August of 1946 where he planned to attend Baker University for two years and then move on.
"I came to Baldwin in 1946 for two years and I haven't left since," he said.
Instead, he decided to get his degree from Baker and upon graduation, went to work at Baldwin State Bank.
"I went to work two days after I graduated," Don said.
The Nutts raised three boys in Baldwin -- David, Mark and Mike. They live in Lawrence, Bedford, N.H. and Chicago, respectively. Nothing is more important to the Nutts than that trio. The sons keep in close contact with their parents.
Throughout the years, Don has been traditional about his Valentine's Day customs.
"I get her a dozen red and yellow roses every year," Don said.
The couple has also been a steady rock for a local Valentine's Day tradition. The Baldwin Community Arts Council's Chocolate Auction was started 19 years ago. The Nutts have attended every one.
"We go to the Chocolate Auction and eat sweet food," he said.
Ruth is another part of that tradition. She's made a hot chocolate mixture every year that she's famous for.
"Every Chocolate Auction, I've made my mixture," she said, giving the ingredients -- chocolate mixture, powdered milk, creamora and powdered sugar -- but not the measurements for her recipe, which she said are secret.
As for their secrets for staying together for 64 years, Don says it's easy.
"I just agree with her," he said with a laugh.
She's not sure about that.
"No. We kind of work it out," Ruth said.
"There are very few difficulties we've had," Don added.
This year on Valentine's Day the couple plans to celebrate a little differently than in years past.
"Well, we're going out to Three Sisters Inn for dinner," Don said, noting that the bed and breakfast in Baldwin is under new ownership.
Ruth doesn't have a problem with doing different things for the day.
"No. Whatever comes up," she said. "Sometimes we go out for dinner, sometimes we don't."
That's for 64 years and counting.
Bonner Springs couple went to Belleville to elope
Norma and Eugene Ward eloped 60 years ago.
And they've spent all but seven of their married years living in Bonner Springs.
They met while Eugene was working at Bonner Springs Lumber. That was at 209 Oak St., where the Pink Zebra now sits. Norma's parents, Ward and Irene Harrington, ran the funeral home across the street.
Eugene was visiting Bonner Springs on leave. He had completed more than 50 missions as a tech sergeant for an Army Air Corps bomber group during World War II. Norma's parents suggested he take her to the Kansas University-Missouri University football game that Thanksgiving. It was Nov. 23, 1944. They went to the game and they still have the 25-cent program to prove it.
Norma, who was then a third-year bacteriology major at KU, said the date didn't seem that special at the time.
"Sure, we hit it off," she said. "I just wanted to go to the game."
"KU got beat bad, 28 to 0," Eugene recalled. "But in later years, we've seen KU beat them."
"We're a big KU family," Norma says.
After just one date, though, neither says they had any inkling it would lead to anything more. After Eugene returned to duty in Europe, they kept in touch through letters and telephone calls. When Eugene got out of the service in 1946, they decided to elope. And they did so, on June 21 in Belleville, Kan., where Gene had promised a cousin he'd help with harvest.
Norma said she has been asked whether she was sorry she missed having a big church wedding.
"I've never regretted it," she said with a smile.
"We just decided we wanted to get married," Eugene says. "We didn't want to wait."
Sixty years, three children and five granddaughters later, it's clear that the two still enjoy each other's company. They tease and quibble over details of old-time Bonner and how to best light the room for a photograph as they sit on the couch.
And they like to talk about historical aspects of Bonner Springs. Norma can recount all the fires in Bonner she's seen (three of them churches). She remembers the old park before it was Lions Park. And Eugene is quick to recall what business was where when, and who lived at what address.
Norma said it doesn't feel like it's been 60 years since they married.
"It seems like we just got out of high school," she said with a smile.
"It's hard to believe all the stuff we've gone through," Eugene said. "It's been a great life, and we have a great family. We've had our ups and downs and we've had a lot of fun."
The Wards are both retired now after 50 years in their respective careers. She was a funeral home director, and Eugene worked as a union millwright.
As for advice to younger couples on how to make a marriage work, the two offer some down-to-earth wisdom: "Don't give up," Eugene says. "Just keep going."
"If you can't live with one person," Norma says, "you probably can't live with anyone else."
Roadside rose symbolized
Gene and Jo Etta Gower remember most of the details of his proposal more than 57 years ago.
"We were driving from Centropolis to Ottawa," Jo Etta said. "There was a sign that when we went around the curve, the car lights would shine on a big red rose. He said that rose was mine."
Somehow, the couple remembered Gene's gift of the rose led Jo Etta to observe he hadn't asked her to marry him. At that, he stopped at the "beckon light"-- a tower with an airplane warning light that was another landmark on the Centropolis to Ottawa road-- and proposed beside his 1936 Ford.
The couple married in December 1949, six months after the roadside proposal and less than a year after they met on a double date arranged by Jo Etta's cousin.
Nearly six decades after the proposal, Gene still surprises Jo Etta with romantic gestures, Jo Etta said. Her husband sends flowers on special occasions and passes along cards.
"Mother's Day cards, birthday cards, anniversary," Jo Etta said. "He makes them himself. They're more appreciated than any card he could buy me."
That's because Jo Etta knows the effort that goes into the cards. Gene has lost most of his eyesight to macular degeneration.
It is just one of the physical impairments developed by the man Jo Etta's remembers once shoveled 70 tons of sand from a boxcar by himself. Gene is diabetic and had a major heart bypass operation.
Gene said he viewed his wife's care of him as her way of returning his romantic gestures. His wife sees the care as part of the "until death do us part" vow she took 57 years ago.
"He's my baby," she said. "He's my best friend, and he better say I'm his."
She's enjoyed the entire 57-year ride that saw the couple's first apartment in Ottawa submerged in the 1951 flood (destroying their wedding pictures), had her following Gene around the eastern United States during his two-year Army enlistment in the Korean War, and produced three children, seven grandchildren and three great-children.
Gene was working at a lumberyard when he met Jo Etta. He would go on to manage three more, including the one in De Soto.
At the De Soto lumberyard, husband and wife became employer and employee when Jo Etta worked as the business' bookkeeper.
"Everybody said, 'I don't know how you can be together all day and all night,'" Gee said. "As far as I know we did all right. We got along well together."
Jo Etta said she was baffled by those who commented on the strain of working with her husband.
"Everybody said that," she said. "I thought it was wonderful."
In sickness and in health
Margarette and Norman Nolop celebrated their 57th anniversary in January, but it was the 67th anniversary of their first encounter.
In 1940, Norman came to the Lansing area, where he began fifth grade at the same Lutheran school where Margarette was attending third grade. Norman became friends with Margarette's older brother, who was also a fifth-grader, and eventually came to know his peer's younger sister. Norman's friendship with Margarette grew over the years, and eventually the relationship became much more than friendship.
"Something must've been preordained in there," Norman said. "It survived adolescence and the teen years and stayed alive and kept burning hotter and hotter."
Even though the Nolops began marriage with 10 years of friendship behind them, learning to live together as husband and wife wasn't always easy. But through compromise and faith, they were always able to manage their disagreements.
Last month, the couple celebrated their anniversary -- in Cushing Memorial Hospital in Leavenworth, where Margarette was a patient. They shared some advice for a long-lasting relationship.
"That old saying that each one of you has to give 100 percent isn't true -- it's 110 percent," Margarette said. "And when you do that and by the grace of God you come to agreement about everything."
Norman's best advice for making a marriage work is a philosophy he's applied to his own through the years.
"I've always looked upon it that Margarette was queen of the household. And the king's job was to keep the queen happy," Norman said, pausing as his wife interjected.
"It's a big job some days," Margarette said with a laugh.
"The ruler of the roost has got to remember that you keep the queen happy," Norman said, continuing. "And without giving away your position as the leader of the household, you still have to say, 'I lead at her choice.'"
The Nolops have enjoyed their retirement, considering the time they now get to spend together as well as the adventures they have had traveling. And they remembered their blessings on Christmas Eve when family members gathered in their new home. Even after nearly 57 years of marriage, it was a new beginning.
"It's been a good marriage. It's been a blessed marriage," Margarette said. "We have many, many things to be thankful for."