When I was a young newspaper reporter, my bosses used to give me the grunt-related jobs, everything from fetching the coffee to writing photo captions. One day early in my career, working part time at the Centre Daily Times (I hadn’t even made it yet to a full time job at the Lewistown Sentinel), I found myself with the unenviable task of editing the paper’s Community Section which included the obituaries and anniversaries. Every weekend, the paper ran a short section with photos and text on couples who had been married for a significant number of years – usually 50 years.
When I went into work that day, I groaned internally when the editor-on-call asked me to tackle the anniversaries and edit a couple of obituaries that had come earlier in the day. Yes, both sections were an important part of any newspaper, less now thanks to the Internet, but the job at the time did not fill me with excitement.
I was filling in, helping out weekends, and in full-time job search mode. I tried immediately to talk my way out of the task. I considered myself on the verge of a hard hitting journalism career, not some local fluff writer. I pointed to the police scanner blaring in the background. “There seems to be a lot of activity on the scanner. Sounds like a big fire,” I said, noting the number of fire companies that had already been called. “Don’t you want someone on the scene?”
The editor shook his head no and said that the paper didn’t usually send reporters out to cover small brush fires. He rolled his eyes like he knew exactly what I had been up to and went back to whatever he had been reading before I interrupted him.
I grudgingly went to work: Give me a fire, give me the cops beat, give me something big. I needed clips, not the kind of clips the Anniversary or Obituary sections were going to give me. God and fate, however, don’t always give us what we want. They tend to give us the challenges that we need.
So instead of chasing after a fire or writing about the controversial zoning issue that was taking up a lot of space in the newspaper, I got sent to a desk in a far-away corner to type in the handwritten details that someone — more than likely the couple’s children or friends — had submitted about the two couples scheduled to be featured in that weekend’s edition. The anniversary format was straightforward. You listed when the couple would celebrate their anniversary and where they got married. You would include some biographical information about the husband and then the wife. You would list any children and grandchildren. If the couple included a thank you or words of advice you’d include those too. All pretty simple.
I can’t say that I had paid much attention to the Community section, in particular the anniversaries, prior to that day. I usually whizzed right past that page onto the sports page or comics. On that day, though, I spent 15 minutes staring at the picture of the two couples. They were simple folks. In particular, I remember that I couldn’t stop focusing on the smiles on their faces and the way they held onto each other. They weren’t just two people thrown together. They were a team. They were couples who had survived wars, deaths, financial pressures and a million other daily challenges and had worked hard on their marriage, carving out 50 years together.
The actual task of writing up the text that ran with each photo took little to no time. I’m not sure why, but I picked up the phone and actually called both couples to verify some piece of information. I remember wanting to get to the secret to their success. If I was going to be forced to take on the grunt work, then I was going to take it seriously and follow through and make sure I got the facts correct.
They seemed surprised when I asked for their prescription to a lasting marriage and simply said they had found their soul mate and worked hard at building a marriage each and every day. They talked about putting the other person first in their lives and finding the humor in life. The one husband joked about getting his wife roses every other month and how it got him out too many jams to count. But when I talked to his wife, she pooh-poohed the flowers, saying she thought the daily walks they took together were infinitely more valuable. Both couples talked too about finding time for each other and never going to bed angry. I thanked them for their time and went back to work. I’m not sure what advice I expected to hear, but I’m pretty sure I expected it to be more detailed than that.
I moved onto the next task, the next thing on my list, and didn’t really think much about the couples again until the note on their anniversary ran in that weekend’s newspaper. I’d like to say that I saved the newspaper clipping, but I’m sure I didn’t.
A short while later, I would end up getting my first full-time newspaper job. I would move onto a regular newspaper beat and one day out of journalism completely and into corporate communications, but I would never forget the anniversaries that I prepared that one weekend. They were very much in the back of my mind when I moved to Washington, D.C. to be closer to my then girlfriend and then later got down on one knee to ask her to marry me.
I’ve been thinking about those two couples especially in recent weeks as my wife and I get ready to celebrate another anniversary. On Friday,we’ll celebrate our 22nd Anniversary. We still have a long way to go to make 50, but I’ve tried to keep the simple, folksy lessons that the two couples taught me all those years ago.
While I’m sure that I’m wiser for remembering those two couples, I also know that I’m still pretty clueless about what makes a great marriage. I credit hard work, the discipline to fight through the struggles . . . and quite frankly my wife. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have lasted one day — forget about one month or one year — without her love, patience, support and trust.