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Three Elizabethtown couples have watched the county grow with hands entwined, their lives wrapped in romances stretching more than 60 years.
Built on a foundation of compromise, mutual interests and trust, their marriages have defied societal pressures and internal conflict through the tethered bonds of unspoken understanding and a shared contempt for arguments and bickering.
Fred Pence, one of the husbands featured, said he could never tolerate “fussing” and recalled few fights with his wife. Quickly one side or the other would give in and move on, he said.
“It’s something you have to give and take on,” he said of his own marriage. “You have to give part of it away for them to give back.”
Pence married his high school sweetheart, Kathleen, on the day of their graduation from Lynnvale High School in 1946. They will celebrate 67 years of matrimony in May.
“It was a simple wedding, but it worked,” she said.
The couple recalled an instant attraction.
“I kinda liked the look of him,” Kathleen, 84, said of her husband. “To get his attention, I purposely dropped my comb to see if he would pick it up, and he did.”
Kathleen’s flirtatious gesture would blossom into a full-blown romance shortly after, and their dating intensified once Fred acquired his driver’s license.
She was attracted to his charismatic smile, exploits as a basketball player, kind nature and strong moral compass. Fred, 86, said his wife’s kindness and love for him convinced him he had something good, and her excellent cooking didn’t hurt. By the time their senior year ended, they were a seasoned couple and felt enough time had passed to warrant tying the knot.
The superintendent announced their nuptials to a packed room during graduation, referencing the need to rearrange the diplomas because Kathleen had changed her name earlier in the day.
Fred retired from Dow Corning while Kathleen spent 20 years at E-town Sportswear.
The Pences are aided in their marriage by a shared love of basketball, country music and traveling. Fred said they have been avid University of Kentucky basketball fans since the 1940s and traveled to practically every state except Alaska and Hawaii, They have spent a lot of time in the western U.S. and Branson, Mo., a popular spot where they satiated their hunger for country music.
Kathleen favors Conway Twitty while Fred is less likely to name a specific artist.
“If they had any talent at all, I liked it,” he said.
At their home, they celebrated their two sons and doted on several grandchildren, great-grandchildren, stepgrandchildren and stepgreat-grandchildren while discussing their relationship.
Fred said it’s common to hear of children who complain of boredom today, but their sons were never bored as they tended to chores and worked hard on the family’s farm, which he framed as an excellent place to raise children.
“It’s a lot of work, but I really enjoyed those times,” he said.
His wife advises younger couples to determine why they are marrying and grasp the work needed to keep a marriage intact.
“We really knew what we were getting into,” said Kathleen, who described a young couple committed to one another so fully that the idea of calling it quits never was a question.
“That’s in the vows,” she said. “Until death do us part.”
Edith and Hilton Henderson’s marriage started with a simple date and a movie she no longer can remember after all these years. They celebrated their 65th year of marriage in October.
“We went to the movie in Elizabethtown and we had a good time,” Edith, 84, said.
A few days after the date, she missed the school bus and Hilton, now 90, picked her up.
After six to eight months of dating, they wed and spent time in Eastview, White Mills and other parts of the county before settling on Sycamore Street in Elizabethtown, a neighborhood they have called home for more than 50 years. They have been members of College Heights United Methodist Church for most of that time, crediting their Christian faith as a reason for their successful marriage as they reap God’s blessings.
“Life has been very good to us,” she said.
Still in relatively good health, the couple has been spending winters in Florida for nearly 30 years and soaked up the sun as they spoke to The News-Enterprise by phone and Skype earlier this month. Edith had taken a swim that morning and said they were basking on the beach for one more year because this likely will be their last extended trip.
Sondra Johnson, one of the couple’s three children, coordinated the interview and joked that they traveled to Florida to flee the cold weather.
“They’re water people,” Johnson said.
Edith, who managed most of the discussion on behalf of her husband, said God has allowed them to pursue their loves, including square dance competitions and stock car racing.
“I won two races,” she said.
They also traveled extensively despite their modest income. Johnson said her parents had family throughout the U.S. and easily found places to stay during their travels.
“I never knew I was poor,” she said of her upbringing.
Hilton served in the U.S. Navy and worked as a body shop foreman for three decades while Edith worked in civil service at Fort Knox.
Hilton, a capable handyman, built furniture for the family when money was tight. Johnson said he once built a table for the home and a crib for the children.
“They tell tales about putting my brother in a drawer because they did not have anything,” Johnson said.
But finances never stood in the way of enjoying their lives, and they instilled gratitude and resourcefulness in their children.
“No, it’s not everything because we never had much money in our lives,” she said of money.
When asked how they have kept the marriage alive, Edith said it was simple.
“I don’t think we ever went to bed mad,” she said. “Maybe one or two times. Of course, we do have our spats, don’t get me wrong.”
But those spats never festered into ugly grudges or grave problems, she said. And no trial or tribulation strong enough to derail their union ever surfaced.
“We got mad at each other, yeah, but we never thought about leaving one another,” she said.
Johnson said as someone who has endured a divorce, she admires her parents’ commitment to one another.
“This generation is a lost art, and we’re going to lose this whole generation one of these days,” she said.
A candy sweet commitment
James and Gloria Jones started their lives together in a candy factory, surrounded by sugary treats in Detroit.
“We often said we had a sweet romance,” James said with a chuckle.
They both worked for the company: He was in the shipping department while she worked in the office, where he visited her.
They married in December 1951, but their life together was put on hold in early 1952 when James was sent to Korea.
“The Army has a way of changing your plans,” he said.
The couple said the separation proved difficult, but they wrote letters to one another to stay in contact. Gloria, who moved in with her mother-in-law during her husband’s tour, wrote him every night.
James, now 82, was unable to write with the same frequency fighting in a war, but wrote when he could and often received half a dozen letters at once from his wife, sometimes more, because of mail delays.
James spent about two years overseas and saved his money. His wife, meanwhile, returned to her former job and spent little so they could save for the future.
When James returned, they pooled their money and had enough for a down payment on a home and the home furnishings they needed.
“I guess it was a blessing in disguise,” he said of his service.
Gloria, 84, said she was touched by her mother-in-law’s loving nature and willingness to accept her as a daughter. Gloria lost her own mother when she was a child and grew up in foster homes.
“She was a great mother-in-law,” Gloria said. “She took the place of my own mother.”
James’ mother moved in with them and helped take care of their children while the couple worked. Gloria said her mother-in-law also helped build her own relationship with God.
“It made a difference in my life, to learn about Jesus,” she said.
James and Gloria count their faith in Jesus Christ as the single strongest knot binding their marriage together and said those who put God first in their lives have a strong surface to stand on.
“It’s a good way to start and finish,” he said.
The couple left Michigan in 1960 to delve into the grocery business with James’ brother in western Kentucky, and later ventured into Tennessee before moving to Elizabethtown in the late 1960s. They owned and operated as many as four stores in the IGA chain before retiring from the business in 1992, James said.
He jokingly referred to his wife as a “foreigner” and laughed when claiming he needed papers to transport her south of the Mason Dixon line. James was born in Texas but had Kentucky roots before moving to Michigan. Gloria had called Detroit her home since birth. However, she enjoyed Kentucky during visits and supported the move because of the distant relationships she had with her family.
Working together in business, she said, strengthened their relationship because they spent more time together than the average couple. Their children would exit the school bus at their store, James said, and a playroom was set up to keep them occupied.
They reined in disagreements and — like the other couples — never allowed arguments to escalate.
“If we got angry, we would just walk away,” James said.
Now living at Allegro, they maintain a tidy home full of family photographs and clasped their hands together atop an old Bible as they recalled old memories.
“We’ve been happy the whole time,” James said.
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or firstname.lastname@example.org.