- Associated Press - Saturday, October 21, 2017

QUINCY, Ill. (AP) - Jim and Judy Schonhoff were trying to bring together a blended family when they attended a Marriage Encounter 35 years ago — two weeks after tying the knot.

Both divorced and bringing children from their past marriages to the table, they saw the retreat as a way to strengthen their second matrimonial go-around, a sort of insurance policy. They didn’t expect to develop friendships with the six sets of strangers they were paired with at the encounter. No one there expected to walk away with such a large group of lifelong friends.

The Worldwide Marriage Encounter that the Schonhoffs attended is not meant to solve problematic marriages, but seeks to improve communication in already strong couples. The leaders of the encounter divided participants into groups and told them to continue meeting monthly after they returned home.

That was in 1982, and the group has been meeting regularly since.

“I really think this group probably kept us together,” Judy said. “There were times when we were butting heads, but we would get together with the group and start laughing.”

In 35 years, there haven’t been any divorces in the group.

The Schonhoffs hosted September’s meeting — each couple takes a turn hosting. Laughter erupting from the Schonhoffs’ kitchen could be heard even before entering the home. Al Tate was one of several people crowded around the kitchen’s center island — where humus and vegetables and carrot cake were afterthoughts to the fellowship — lightheartedly ribbing the others while they dished it right back at him.

“We’ll make a joke out of everything,” he said. “You can’t take life too seriously.”

Al and his wife, Cathy, have been married for 51 years. Like most of the other couples in the group, they were high school sweethearts. One of the group’s main jokers, Al was cautioned by Cathy to think before he spoke.

“I think this group has kept us grounded in our relationship,” Cathy said. “We’ve supported each other with raising kids.”

Most of the members were parents in their mid- to late 30s — the elders of the group, John and Doris Newman, were in their early 50s — when they went on the retreat. The bulk of the meetings for the first couple of decades focused on parenting, sharing tips and comparing notes.

“John and Doris had already been through it, so we asked them a lot of questions,” Cathy said.

The couples have diversity in their belief systems — three are Catholic, three are Protestant, and one couple has different faiths — but their shared Christianity helped formed the basis of the group. Every meeting opens with a prayer written by one of the men.

When their son was permanently disabled in a car accident, Al and Cathy leaned heavily on the group for support.

“I was pretty angry at God,” Al said, “but they helped me through that.”

Somewhere along the way, the topic of conversation shifted from raising healthy children to dealing with sick parents. Almost every member has buried his or her parents since the group formed.

When Al went on a Great River Honor Flight, everyone was there to greet him when he returned.

Steve Myers and his wife, Jackie, also high school sweethearts, have been married for 52 years. Steve was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma about six weeks ago. He isn’t supposed to be in large groups — his chemotherapy treatments have compromised his immune system — but he refuses to miss the monthly meeting, opting instead to wear a surgical mask over his nose and mouth.

“I’m not the first one in the group to get cancer,” Steve said.

Steve admits that, like all the other men in the group, he dragged his feet in attending the encounter — he and a few others snuck in radios — but he and Jackie can’t imagine their lives without the group now.

“This group,” he said, “we’ve supported each other, and they’re doing it now for me. It’s just overwhelming. There’s no way you can describe it.”

John and Doris Newman, the patriarch and matriarch of the group, have been married for 62 years and have two children, five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Growing up, Doris was John’s sister’s best friend, and when John drove the two to nursing training in St. Louis, he finally asked Doris out. Shortly after, he was drafted into the Navy — the two married while he was on leave for Christmas.

The group has seen them through losing a daughter, a granddaughter and a daughter-in-law. They were never without someone to talk to when times were tough.

“We’ve always had great friends, but these are our best friends,” John said, “and we’ve basically outlived everyone else.”

Among the other members, Mike and Judy Young have been married for 49 years, Jim and Barb Daggett for 48 years, and John and Jayne Lammers for 48 years. Collectively, the group has 344 years of marriage among them.

“This group always changes your mood,” Judy Schonhoff said. “You always leave a whole lot more cheerful.”

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Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig, https://bit.ly/2yIpY4W

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Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, https://www.whig.com

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