"Marriage is Not for Sissies"

Staying married a long time can be hard work. You need patience, can’t hold grudges, and have to give each other space. Holding hands helps, too.

By: Cindy Rich

Philip and Rachel Brown—who have been married 74 years and lived in Annapolis since 1933—helped lead the effort to equalize white and black teachers’ salaries in Anne Arundel County Schools. Philip, an author and historian specializing in local African-American history, is 98; Rachel, a lifelong teacher, is 94.

Philip: In 1930, she and I were assigned to the Skidmore School in Annapolis. I was the principal, and she was the assistant teacher.

Rachel: My brother brought me to the school meeting, and Philip was standing on the step. I told my brother, “That’s the fellow I’m going to marry.” I didn’t know he was my principal.

Philip: She looked good—that was my first impression. I took a second look.

Rachel: I knew I wanted someone who would be responsible and who had at least the education that I had.

Philip: We worked together for a couple years and decided there was a reason we were assigned to that school—that we were intended for each other. One Sunday, we knocked on the minister’s door and said, “Can you marry us today?”

Rachel: The minister told us the people he married stayed married and he didn’t want to hear anything about divorce.

Philip: That was our counseling.

Philip: People say, “How did you stay together this long?” I say it was sheer determination.

Rachel: Our sons thought we never had an argument, but that’s not true.

Philip: We never got mad with each other in front of the children.

Rachel: You can disagree agreeably.

Philip: Don’t make a federal offense out of everything.

Rachel: In the kitchen, I’ve got the rules for a happy marriage: “Don’t yell at each other unless the house is on fire.”

Philip: Most of the time, she’s up here reading and I listen to music downstairs. We can easily get away from each other.

Rachel: He loves his music, and I love my reading. If I find something I want him to hear, I’ll go down and read it to him.

Philip: Insist on reading it to me.

Rachel: If he finds something he wants me to hear, he’ll turn it up.

Philip: The spark doesn’t burn as brightly. You can’t expect to act like you’re 20.

Rachel: He didn’t know he was making that vow for 74 years. He thought after 50 . . . .

Philip: Regardless of how many years, for me it was going to be life. For richer, for poorer.

Rachel: A marriage is not for anybody who’s not serious. Marriage is not for sissies.

“You’ve Been Waiting for This Kiss”

Lewis and Doris Maiden, who have been married 57 years, live in DC’s Petworth neighborhood. They have five children, 13 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, with another on the way. Lewis retired after 37 years with the government and a second job driving a taxi. He is 78; his wife is 75.

Lewis: We knew each other at birth almost. We lived on Capitol Hill.

Doris: We were little children together. He was a friend of my brother’s. I was about 15, but I couldn’t keep company until I was 16. He asked my mother if he could take me to the movies.

Lewis: She used to ask the girls if I was their boyfriend. She was after me.

Doris: The first time he kissed me, he said, “You’ve been waiting for this a long time.”

Lewis: I don’t remember that.

Doris: He said that—like he was a real Casanova. But he knew I liked him, and I knew he liked me.

Doris: I got married at 17, right out of high school, and he was 20. My parents said, “You’re so young. Are you in love?” I said yes. My mother said, “Do you think you can stay with him the rest of your life?” I said yes.

Lewis: Her parents loved me.

Doris: He was handsome.

Lewis: I was? What about now?

Doris: He had this beautiful complexion, like a suntan.

Lewis: What about now?

Doris: I like your bald head up on top. I like everything about you, old man.

Lewis: Something keeps every married couple together. It is love, but it’s something else, too—something you need in order to have that love. It’s understanding. I have to understand her, and she has to understand me.

Doris: My husband tells me four times a day, “I love you, Doris.” I say, “I love you, too, Lewis.” We argue about silly things. We always make up.

Lewis: I get mad with her, and she laughs at me.

Doris: He’ll say, “Come, here—I love you, girl.” And he’ll hug and kiss me and that’s it. If you have a fight, never go to bed without speaking. It’s very hard, but you can make up. Sometimes I do go to bed that way, but during the night I’ll take my arm and put it over him.

“It’s Been a Fascinating Life”

Pete and Betty Boerger, both 82, live near Fort Belvoir. They’ll celebrate their 60th anniversary in June at West Point, where they were married. He retired as a brigadier general.

Betty: We were both raised in a little town in South Dakota. We were in a mock wedding when we were five. My father had a jewelry store.

Pete: You had to have a bride to advertise jewelry. Betty was the bride, and I was the groom. I had on tails and a white tie and top hat. Betty had a bouquet of lollipops, and I had a boutonniere with one lollipop. After the ceremony, my mother turned to Betty’s mother and said, “Will Betty share her lollipop with Petey?” Betty has been . . .

Betty: . . . sharing lollipops ever since.

Pete: We started going together seriously in the eighth grade. Betty was the most vivacious of all the girls.

Betty: I remember my first kiss—in the lilac bushes.

Pete: I was a sophomore. They had lilac bushes on the side of their house. I walked home on air that night. I kissed her on the forehead—that was it.

Betty: It wasn’t anything whoop-de-do.

Pete: When I went to West Point, cadets could not be married, so I wanted to get in and out of there as fast as I could.

Betty: The day Pete graduated from West Point, I wouldn’t let him out of the gate until we got married. He told me the Army had to come first, and I understood that. Those who did get divorced didn’t understand. If Pete got orders to go to Timbuktu? We’d go to Timbuktu.

Pete: Germany, Korea, Iran, Hawaii.

Betty: Is this the 35th move?

Pete: I went off to war three times.

Betty: It’s hard to say what makes a happy marriage.

Pete: Understanding. Faith in each other.

Betty: You have to have your own space. We meet at 5 o’clock in his study. He turns his room into the cocktail lounge, and we have our “toots”—that’s what they call a drink in Hawaii. We watch the news. I have a bourbon and water.

Pete: I drink vodka and water.

Betty: We just have one.

Pete: If Betty gets upset, I just listen. Her blood pressure will go sky-high and she’ll fuss and fume, and five minutes later it’s over.

Betty: You can’t hold a grudge.

“You’re in It Together or You’re Not”

Raymond and Jessica Burmester have been married 42 years. They met while in line for lunch at the Washington Navy Yard, where they worked in computer programming. Now retired, the Burmesters live in Fairfax and do volunteer mental-disability advocacy work. Raymond, 71, and Jessica, 67, still call themselves “lovebirds.” They have two children.

Jessica: It’s easy to be married when everything’s good. When something happens—that’s when you really know how strong your marriage is. Like when our son, Randy, was born.

Raymond: When you have a disabled child, it’s almost unbelievable. It wasn’t until Randy was in his teens that it began to sink in how profoundly mentally retarded he was.

Jessica: It makes you look at your marriage. You’re either in it together or you’re not.

Raymond: I became really angry—not at anyone or anything, just angry that this could have happened to us. Jessica is a saint. She put up with me.

Jessica: When Randy was in school, Ray would get up and dress him. I laid out the clothes. We drove to work together. We ate lunch together.

Raymond: When you consider that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce—if there’s a disabled child involved, it’s 85 percent—those statistics are hard for us to relate to. It’s not part of our world.

Jessica: We get Randy on Sundays. He waits at the door of his group home.

Raymond: There are times when you have to laugh.

Jessica: You laugh and you cry.

Jessica: After we retired, advocacy for the disabled became a full-time job. We work as a team. Ray is more of a big-picture person. I say I’m his administrative assistant—I do the details.

Raymond: Two years ago, I was sitting at my computer and I keeled over because my heart stopped.

Jessica: I heard him start to fall. I looked over and thought, “Oh, my God—he’s dead.” I turned him over, and he opened his eyes. I said, “We’ve got to get you to the hospital.” He said, “Let me go shave.”

Raymond: Jessica wanted to keep me around for a while.

Jessica: He needed a pacemaker.

Raymond: Jessica lives to travel. I like to read and work in my garden. Now we’ll go anywhere in the world she wants to go, as often as she wants.

“Love Got Better, Not Worse”

John and Betty Herbers have been married 54 years. John, 83, is a retired New York Times reporter whose books include No Thank You, Mr. President. He and Betty, 82, have four daughters and live in Bethesda.

Betty: We grew up in Memphis and met at a church conference when we were 16 and 17. He was a steady guy, calm and rather quiet. I’m talkative.

John: I had come from a small town, and people didn’t have much money there. We were standing downtown in Memphis, and Betty said, “I’m going to go across the street to this department store and get a bracelet.” She came back with this real fancy bracelet, and I said, “Did you have enough money?” She said, “I charged it to my father.” I was impressed by anybody who could get away with that.

Betty: John played high-school basketball and gave me his pendant. I’ve been wearing it all these years.

John: We had a brief courtship, then went our separate ways. I went to the war and then to college. Betty’s sister recognized me at church in Jackson, Mississippi. She had Betty come down from Memphis and had us to dinner. Within six months, we were married.

Betty: I think faith has probably played a big role in our marriage.

John: True, but if you weren’t in love, it wouldn’t be the same. We’ve been held together by love—which we found got better, not worse.

Betty: It’s give and take. When John’s cooking, the kitchen is a mess, so I clean up. I’m glad to do it because it tastes so good.

John: She’ll say, “You need a haircut. When are you going to the barber?” And I had no intention of going to the barber, but I go.

Betty: We never really take each other too seriously.

John: It doesn’t seem like 54 years. The older you get, the faster time flies.

Betty: We kiss each other good night.

John: If we’re both tired, it’ll just be a peck.

Betty: Every time we hear Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” we have to dance—even in a restaurant.

“That Mars and Venus Thing”

Marie and Wendell Johns have been married 36 years. Marie, 55, was president and chief executive of Verizon Washington before running for DC mayor last year. She’s a trustee of Howard University. Wendell, 56, retired last year as a vice president at Fannie Mae and is now executive vice president of NHP Foundation. They have a son and a grandson and live in the District’s Spring Valley neighborhood.

Marie: The way we met is the subject of a 30-year dispute. We both went to Indiana University. I was with friends, and I was supposed to be studying. I remember him coming in, and I remember just feeling this feeling.

Wendell: I’d met her already, before classes started. We’d passed pleasantries. Obviously, whatever that feeling was didn’t hit her the first time.

Marie: Delayed reaction.

Wendell: I was 20 and Marie was 19 when we got married. You couldn’t get a marriage license in Indiana until you were 21. We ended up eloping to Louisville, Kentucky, in a snowstorm.

Marie: We didn’t have anything. We were working like dogs, but we couldn’t have been happier. Before long, we had our little child and it was just heaven. Sometimes I think wealth can get in the way for young couples. You have these standards you feel you need to meet—this kind of vacation, this kind of house, this kind of car—and we’ve got this kind of divorce rate.

Marie: I know I get on his nerves because I’m more impetuous. I like to go and do. Wendell’s much more of a planner.

Wendell: Marie’s probably the great communicator. I’m probably the great incommunicator.

Marie: That Mars and Venus thing.

Wendell: We’ve always been two busy people living our lives together. We like it that way—if we spent too much time with each other, we wouldn’t know what to do.

Marie: After we got into career mode, Fridays were always date nights.

Wendell: Whenever we’re taking off in an airplane, we hold each other’s hand.

Marie: We always tried to worship together on Sunday mornings.

Wendell: I watch sports. She has gone to a Wizards game with a book.

Marie: I like to keep my options open.

Wendell: We’ve always made an effort to leave work outside the door. Once we come inside, it’s like “Okay, we’re here. We’re home.”

Marie: You go through seasons when one person feels like they need a little something extra. Then the other person will have a season like that. Sometimes he makes me really angry. Sometimes he makes me crazy, but I love him. So we keep going.

Wendell: That’s what makes marriages stronger.

Marie: People asked if we were going to renew our vows for our 25th anniversary. We did them once, and they stuck.

“Apologizing Is Good”

Bill and Charito Kruvant have been married 40 years. Charito is president and CEO of Creative Associates International, an education and management company that specializes in hostile environments; Bill, an economist, helps with special projects. The couple’s two children also work there. Bill and Charito, both 61, live in McLean.

Bill: Charito was an exchange student from Argentina. She came into my high-school Spanish class and immediately had my full attention. She was beautiful.

Charito: I was odd. My features were Indian, but my demeanor was European. We kissed before I went back to Argentina. It was my first kiss.

Bill: When we got engaged, our families were not too happy. We were young. Different religions, different races.

Charito: My father used to say, “If you love each other, you’ll work it out.” My mother was much more emotional about Bill being Jewish and the idea that I would be away from my family. My parents came to the wedding, but my mom’s plan was to take me back to Argentina.

Bill: I wanted to stay in Wisconsin for grad school, but my application got lost. I was accepted other places, and Charito asked, “Which is the warmest?” I said American University. So we came to Washington.

Charito: Civility and propriety were more ingrained in my upbringing. Cursing is not appropriate, so it took a couple of years . . .

Bill: . . . to civilize me.

Charito: I started my company 27 years ago. I had to do a lot of traveling—three weeks at a time was my limit. It would have been easy for any spouse to say, “Take a hike.”

Bill: I’ve never had any trouble with Charito being a successful businesswoman or having all the relationships a businessperson has.

Charito: Bill was taking the kids to the doctor and dentist. That was unusual then.

Charito: We always talk. Even if we have a disagreement, one of us will find a way within the next half hour to come back and have a discussion.

Bill: Apologizing is good.

Charito: When we were younger and I had to go out to a dinner, I would insist he go. After a while I said to myself, “Why? The man doesn’t like to come to the dinners.”

Bill: It’s good to be in love and be dependent, but it’s also good to be self-reliant. We carved out a certain amount of autonomy—where’s the family’s money, where’s Charito’s money, where’s Bill’s?

Charito: I walk two hours in a day. I like the idea of being strong.

Bill: We have a farm in the Virginia Hunt Country where we spend a lot of time. I have a vineyard there.

Charito: He knows so much history. He’ll remember what happened in 1455. He was such an intellectual that when he said he was going to be a farmer, we all laughed. Now he’s Grandpa the farmer.

“We Hold Hands All the Time”

Yunjin and Chuleun Kang, who have been married 35 years and live in Bethesda, have two sons and a daughter. Chul, 61, worked in construction when he came to the United States; he later became president of the Korean Association of Greater Washington. He and Yunjin, 60, recently welcomed their second grandson; their daughter-in-law is News4 anchor Eun Yang.

Yunjin: We went to Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. We met when we were helping welcome freshmen. We talked, but that was it.

Chul: I was ROTC in college. During summer vacation, we went to training camp for a month. The night before, everybody went on a date, but I didn’t have a girlfriend. I saw Yunjin and asked, “Can we go to a restaurant?” She said yes.

Yunjin: He had decided not to date or marry until he was 37.

Chul: I grew up in Korea in a poor family. It was my dream to be in politics.

Yunjin: After training camp, we met several times and became crazy for each other. I didn’t care about his plan. We were 26 when we got married.

Yunjin: We wanted to move to the US to study. I moved in December 1971. He was doing a fellowship, so he couldn’t leave. I was pregnant—I wanted my son to have the chance to be a United States president. When Robert was born, I sent Chul a picture. I’d write things down above the pictures about what the baby was doing.

Chul: When I met my son, he was more than a year old. I worried he wouldn’t like me. When I came through Dulles Airport and saw him, Yunjin said, “He’s your daddy.” Right away he came to me.

Yunjin: After marriage, we found we both had really strong personalities.

Chul: She’s so tough—even to her husband. It’s just her character.

Yunjin: If I have a picture I want to hang here, he wants to hang it somewhere else.

Chul: She wins.

Yunjin: We argue like every couple, but we are faithful. We have trust.

Chul: You need patience: If we have a strong fight, we will get over it. If I have a hard time with her, I think back to memories of when I was crazy for her.

Yunjin: He traveled back and forth from Korea for ten years, working and going to law school at night, when our children were high-school and college age.

Chul: I was a spokesman and later chairman of political strategic planning for the Democratic People’s Party in Korea.

Yunjin: I understood his dream to make Korea better. If I’d said no, he wouldn’t have gone. In Korea, a man without his wife has so many chances to have affairs. But I never worried.

Chul: Every time I flew to Korea, I was crying.

Yunjin: Our son is a pastor. When he gives couples advice at weddings, I listen.

Yunjin: If my shoe is untied, Chul ties it. We hold hands all the time.

Chul: If we do that when we’re in Korea, people are surprised.

Yunjin: Couples our age don’t really hold hands there, but we do.

“It Takes Perseverance”

Mitchel “Mike” Sklar owned Mitchel’s Sport Shop, a DC sporting-goods store, for 50 years. He started a professional basketball team called the DC All-Stars and was a practice catcher for the Washington Senators. Mike passed away a few months after this interview, at age 93. He and Adele, 91, who had two daughters, would have celebrated their 70th anniversary in November.

Mike: My friend went with her to one of her sorority dances at Central High School, at 13th and Clifton streets in the District. That’s where we met.

Adele: We danced together.

Mike: She was light as a feather, and a swimming star and tennis player.

Adele: He was a good dancer. And cute.

Mike: We went together for five years. Her friend said, “When are you getting married to Adele?” There was another couple getting married, and she said we should make the wedding a twosome. I told her no, it would be a onesome and that I’d tell Adele before I told her.

Adele: He likes to tell these stories. He will go on and on. My son-in-law said if you ask him what time it is, he’ll tell you how to make a watch.

Mike: We had our wedding at the Shoreham Hotel. I used to catch batting practice for the Washington baseball club, and they sent $300 worth of flowers as a wedding gift. It was gorgeous.

Mike: Everybody argues. We don’t stay mad long. I kiss her or shake hands with her. I used to buy her things. We gave each other presents for 50 years.

Adele: He stopped because I was returning everything.

Mike: She wouldn’t tell me it was because she didn’t like the gifts—she’d say it was because they didn’t fit.

Adele: It takes perseverance. As you get older, you get busy taking care of your children. The romance isn’t always alive, but that’s part of it all.

Mike: I’m always worrying about her. If I’m in a different room, I need to know where she is.

Adele: He does try hard, and he means well. He takes good care of me.