- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 12, 2005

Homer and Bess LaBorwit were married in Baltimore in the midst of the Depression. They were a couple through World War II; the space race; the birth of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and the start of a new millennium.

The couple, now living in Rockville, recently celebrated their 71st anniversary. Their secret to a long-lasting marriage? Simply that when they said “I do,” they meant it. Good times, bad times — it doesn’t really matter. That may be the secret to their success, as well as that of several other couples who have made it to their golden anniversary and beyond.

“People say to us, ‘You’ve been married how long?’ ” says Mrs. LaBorwit, 91. “You have to give as well as get. There is not much advice I can give to young people these days. They live together before they are married. My mom would turn over in her grave if she knew that.”

Says Mr. LaBorwit, 94: “You have to have a sense of humor. It helps the years go by.”

Mr. LaBorwit, a semiretired optician, says he has had a sense of humor all along. He met his future wife at her 16th birthday party.

“We fell in love immediately,” Mrs. LaBorwit says.

A short time later, Mr. LaBorwit ran into his future mother-in-law, who said, “Bessie is going out with a boy. I don’t like him.”

“She didn’t know I was the boyfriend,” Mr. LaBorwit says. “She only knew I was a friend of her son. She didn’t like that I wasn’t a doctor or a lawyer.”

Mrs. LaBorwit’s mother eventually came around. The two dated for four years, then married on Jan. 21, 1934.

“In our day, if you kissed a girl, you married her,” says Mr. LaBorwit. He says it was a learning process to manage a family and know when to agree and disagree.

“You hear couples say they never fight,” he says. “That’s ridiculous. Those are usually the people who kiss in public, but you know in the background it is a different story. In real life, there is always something to argue about.”

Mrs. LaBorwit says balancing time together and time spent on separate interests has been one key characteristic of their long-lasting marriage.

“You have to do your own thing,” she says. “We used to belong to a country club. We both played golf, but with different friends. I play mah-jongg and canasta; he was an officer on the club board. We did things together, but gave each other space. That is why it works.”

The couple has been tested in more recent years. They lost their grown son, Larry, to leukemia nine years ago. Mr. LaBorwit retired from full-time work, which is a big period of adjustment for any couple. They also recently downsized from a large apartment to a smaller, one-bedroom unit.

“You think you have everything down to a routine,” Mr. LaBorwit says. “But when we came here, it was a different living situation.”

Still, the LaBorwits have every intention of making it to their diamond anniversary.

“We have such good memories,” Mrs. LaBorwit says. “Children, vacations. Sure, there have been problems and tragedies, but you have to go on.”

The Shaffers: Faith

Dick and Barbara Shaffer call their romance “a 1950s story.” They met through friends at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1955. They married shortly after and moved 18 times while Dr. Shaffer, a dentist, rose through the Navy ranks. He eventually became a rear admiral and was the commander at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

“When you got married, you stayed married, whether you were happy or not,” says Mrs. Shaffer, 69.

The true test of the Shaffers’ marriage came in the mid-1960s, she says. The two, by then parents of three young sons, were living in Panama, where Dr. Shaffer was stationed.

“I was 29 years old, and I knew I had itches I couldn’t scratch,” Mrs. Shaffer says. “I wanted to feel happy. Dick was doing his career, and we had little kids. In Panama, we were cut off from everything.”

Mrs. Shaffer says it was then that she renewed her relationship with God. She calls her faith “the third element in a good marriage — husband, wife and God.” Mrs. Shaffer says she stopped holding her husband responsible for her happiness.

“I look at my husband and say, ‘I’ve got a good man,’ ” Mrs. Shaffer says. “I need to let him be and fix my own problems. I could stare at the negatives of my life or decide to look at the positives.”

The couple found their rhythm as the years went by.

“When you get to 70, you can’t complete a sentence without help from your spouse,” Dr. Shaffer jokes.

The Shaffers, who in June will celebrate their 48th anniversary, used to play competitive doubles tennis. Mrs. Shaffer helped her husband, now 70, through cancer and quintuple bypass surgery in the past several years. If they have differences, they can solve them — such as getting a second TV rather than arguing over what to watch. They are involved in many activities at McLean Bible Church, including mentoring younger married couples.

Dr. Shaffer followed his wife’s commitment to Christianity 20 years ago. The Shaffers say that knowing God provides the foundation for a successful marriage.

“It is nice to know what the basics of right and wrong are when testing hits you,” Mrs. Shaffer says. “You don’t want to mess things up by the choices you make. I have to say we’re the happiest two people our age.”

The Wilsons: Happy memories

Alma “Tuck” Tucker met Hank Wilson in the early 1940s. She was a college student in Montgomery, Ala. He was an Air Force pilot. They married in December 1943.

“He had silver wings and a red convertible,” Mrs. Wilson, 83, says of their courtship.

“We had the same sort of upbringing. We came from good families. We were both Southerners,” she says. “Later, we never went to sleep without kissing each other goodnight and saying, ‘I love you.’ We had our differences, but nothing that would make us bitter.”

The couple, who still hold hands when they walk down the hall of their retirement community in Fairfax, have had a good life, Mrs. Wilson says. Mr. Wilson, now 86, moved through the ranks of the Air Force, retiring as a brigadier general. They love to watch football together. They raised a daughter. In the 1970s, they shipped a motor home to Europe, where they spent two years “visiting every country except Albania,” Mrs. Wilson says.

“Friends call us ‘Tuck and Hank,’ ” Mrs. Wilson says. “Or sometimes ‘Huck and Tank.’ They know not to call us on Saturdays, because we’ll be watching our football games.”

There were challenges, too. In the 1960s, Mr. Wilson’s mother was ill with what is now known as Alzheimer’s and came to live with the family.

“I had to make it work without fully understanding what the disease was, and raise a teenage daughter, too,” Mrs. Wilson says. “I just didn’t dwell on it. This is life.”

More recently, Mrs. Wilson has become the caretaker for her husband, who has age-related memory loss. She alone has to hold the memories of their years together.

“He gradually stopped talking,” Mrs. Wilson says of her husband. “Then came the wrong words. He doesn’t remember where we met. When you bring things up, he will remember some of it. I can show him pictures.

“It has been rough taking over the financial end of things,” she says. “I never did that before.”

Still, Mrs. Wilson likes to make their life as typical as always. They go to free concerts and have an active social life. Mr. Wilson can still play nine holes of golf, but his wife says she tags along “just in case.”

“It makes me sad,” Mrs. Wilson says, holding back tears, “but I know he would do the same for me. We still haven’t hit the rough parts.”

The Sanderses: Fate

A lot of luck went into Ursula and Harry Sanders’ meeting.

Mr. Sanders, 86, joined the Polish army in World War II. He was on the front for 10 days when he was captured and became a German prisoner of war. He was a POW for more than 5 years. Because he was a Jew, conditions and treatment were extra harsh, he says.

“One day, they came to us and said, ‘You are going home,’ ” says Mr. Sanders, who lives with his wife in a senior citizens community in Rockville. “We were supposed to go to Lublin [Poland]. But the train stopped. Everyone got out, and there were machine guns pointed at us.”

The firing squad started shooting. Mr. Sanders crouched down, and the bullets missed him. He ran away after dark and was harbored for the next 18 months by people living in a cabin in the forest, he says.

Mr. Sanders, who lost the rest of his family in the war, made it to a refugee camp in England. He wanted to go to Israel, which was then Palestine, but was denied entry. He met his future wife when friends introduced them in the London Underground near Piccadilly Circus. They have been married 56 years.

“I lost my family,” Mr. Sanders says. “But [Ursula] accepted me. We are here, and we are happy.”

From dramatic beginnings came an ordinary life. Mr. and Mrs. Sanders moved to New York City, where Mr. Sanders opened a dry-cleaning business. They have one son, Fred, and two grandsons.

They ran the dry-cleaning shop in Queens until 14 months ago, when they moved to Maryland to be closer to Fred and his family.

Mr. Sanders says there is no great secret to their years together. You just live your life, he says.

“Couples today don’t give things a chance,” he says. “We do everything together, but give each other space. That’s why it works.”

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