Everlasting Love

Volumes of marriage licenses fill a back room in the Boone County Government Center. Thousands of bound pages – faded, handwritten entries from the 1800s and crisp, typed records from recent years – document couple after couple who have tied the knot in mid-Missouri. What those pages don’t disclose, though, is which individuals are still alive, still married and still in love.

How do you record such an intense, variable emotion as love? The evidence may not exist in a dusty old archive, perhaps, but true love abounds in Columbia. Inside Columbia takes a look at three couples to uncover why the sparks are still flying after 50-plus years of marriage.

Bettie & Charlie Koelling 83, 82

Married Aug. 5, 1946 (63 years)

Charlie Koelling entered the Navy after high school, a commitment that took him around the country but never into combat. In 1946, he returned home to New Franklin, and found his former classmate Bettie Chester working as a telephone operator.

“She decided that as a concession to honor the military, she would have a date with me,” Charlie recalls with a grin. One visit to the skating rink and the rest is history – even after Bettie sat on a dead frog in the front seat of his ‘35 Ford after an evening of dancing at the Outside Inn in Columbia – a stranger’s practical joke.

Charlie’s mother had to sign the marriage license for him because he wasn’t 21. On the day of their wedding, Bettie was 19 years old and 98 pounds. She wore a blue dress and carried gardenias; 20-year-old Charlie wore a suit. Two friends served as witnesses. The newlyweds honeymooned at Cozy Cove Resort at Lake of the Ozarks; the retreat cost them nearly a quarter of their $100 savings.

That winter, Charlie worked intermittently as a railroad telegraph operator. He decided to take advantage of the GI Bill and earn his bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate at the University of Kansas City. Betty transferred to the Kansas City Southwestern Bell office.

“It wasn’t really too difficult for us to live just on what money I made because we weren’t used to having anything anyway,” Bettie says. “Every time we’d think ‘we’re just not going to make it,’ he’d get a GI insurance dividend of $1.28, or some little something always came along. We were fortunate.”

Charlie later took a job in Kings City where he taught five subjects, coached junior high basketball, supervised two study halls and was the school principal. His $2,300 yearly salary was still less than that of the home economics teacher, so he left after a year.

By 1959, Charlie had earned his doctorate and began what would be a 30-year stint as a professor and associate dean in University of Missouri Extension. He retired in 1986, a year after Bettie stopped working as an assistant to the dean of MU’s journalism school.

“Everybody told me ‘you’re going to be so sorry when he retires because he’ll be underfoot’,” Bettie remembers. “That has never happened.”

“I expect maybe we’ve been closer since we retired than we were before because we spend an awful lot of time together,” Charlie says. “We don’t do very many things separately. We never have, really.”

Bettie describes their relationship as a team – a team that eats nearly every meal together, despite her self-proclaimed lousy cooking. “I don’t know if I hate to cook because I’m not a good cook, or if I’m not a good cook because I hate to cook,” she says.

But Charlie, ever the gracious husband, says his wife is “a pretty good cook” and cites her pot roast as one of his favorite meals. And for dessert? “Every decade or so she’ll make a pie,” he says.

The Bettie and Charlie team raised two children, Karen and Patrick. They also make Christmas fudge, travel the world and always kiss each other at least once before bed – and several times during the day. “We just really do love each other,” Bettie says.

Bettie and Charlie define love as mutual respect for one another. “If you don’t have that, you might as well wrap it up,” Bettie says. “If you have enough love and respect, you’ll be tolerant.”

Charlie adds responsibility to the list: “You can’t just do your own thing,” he says. “You’re obligated to support your spouse and to support your family. You can’t just go willy-nilly.”

Charlie demonstrated such responsibility nine years ago when Bettie developed shingles. She’s since lost vision in one eye and depends on Charlie to drive her around.

“He’s been an angel,” she says. “I don’t know what I would have done without him.”

Shingles has been the only major health problem to plague the Koellings. “I think that having a pleasant life certainly contributes to your longevity,” Bettie says of their relationship. “The one thing I hope never happens is for our children to have to take care of us or see that we’re taken care of. We’ve told them that we’re going to die together. We’ve already decided that. Neither one of us could leave the other one behind, so we’re going to die together.”

“We’re planning to jump out of an airplane together,” Charlie says. “Everything will be alright until we hit the ground.”

Bettie smiles. “We have lots of laughs; that’s Charlie. He has a play on words or something all the time. He’s a good boy, I trained him well.” She pauses. “For our age and state of senility, we’re in pretty good shape.”

Ben & Darlene Londeree 75, 72

Married April 13, 1957 (52 years)

When Ben Londeree met Darlene Karnes, he was as poor as a church mouse.

“I told her, ‘If we don’t do a lot of expensive things, I could see you every day,’ ” Ben says.

Darlene, who worked as a secretary at the school where Ben taught, agreed. They attended free movies and spent time at the root beer stand in the small Mennonite community of Archbold, Ohio. During the summer, Ben drove up to Cedar Point at Lake Erie, where Darlene was vacationing with some girlfriends.

“She was brown as a berry,” Ben remembers.

“He didn’t recognize me,” Darlene laughs.

But that didn’t stop Ben from proposing that evening – with a ring he hadn’t yet paid for. “I had bought a ring, and I was in hock for it,” he says. “I was so poor.”

The couple was on a tight budget in those early days. “When we got started, we really had to watch pennies,” Ben says. “We lived out of envelopes. Money was in an envelope, and when that money ran out, that was it.” Soup became an end-of-the-month staple, and Ben recalls budgeting for several months just to buy a book. The Londerees lived on a $3,700 annual salary in 1956-57 – barely enough to rent a two-bedroom house for $50 a month, especially when Darlene became pregnant in 1958 and stopped working.

“We both came from meager means, so we survived,” she says.

Ben agrees: “We were on the same page, so it worked. We both realized the situation we were in, and we made do.”

Ben worked his way up the career ladder and eventually took a job in the University of Missouri’s Department of Health and Exercise Science in 1971. The couple moved to Columbia from West Lafayette, Ind., and settled into a house west of town – “a wonderful place to raise a family,” Darlene says. The Londerees even joined the neighborhood pool. “This was the first thing I ever did to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’ ” Darlene says with a laugh. “It was a wonderful investment, but it was an extravagant thing for us to do.”

The Londerees have four children, including a mentally retarded son, Robert. Ben, a former competitive runner who worked with only the best athletes, admits that Robert’s condition was initially difficult to accept. “I’d teach him something, and I’d feel really good, and the next day he wouldn’t remember a thing,” he says. Even now at age 47, Robert “takes one step forward and two steps back,” Darlene says. But both parents agree that the upside of Robert’s condition is that his siblings are more understanding and tolerant of others.

Cancer has been another hurdle for the couple. Ben survived a bout with prostate cancer and Darlene has fully recovered from her battle with uterine cancer.

“Until 1994, I thought I was immortal,” says Ben, an active member of the Columbia Track Club. “Actually, I was a running fanatic.” He rarely took a day off, won the club race series multiple times and completed eight marathons. At age 50, Ben decided to back off. “I accepted the fact that I couldn’t do what I used to do,” he says. “In everybody’s life there are obstacles, hardships. How you deal with those is important. I think we’ve dealt with our problems reasonably well. We’ve survived, and it wasn’t the end of the world.”

“I think the big thing is love,” Darlene adds. “We still love each other. If that’s the case, then you’re willing to work through those problems.”

The couple agrees that love – a willingness to work, commit, respect and consider the other person – is the No. 1 ingredient for a long marriage. “I know Darlene thinks of me in most everything she does,” Ben says. “She’s a beautiful person, especially inside.”

Respect and consideration often involve avoiding the negative “buttons,” they say. “Everybody has their buttons,” Ben winks at Darlene. “If you’ve been around them for a while, you know what those buttons are. And if you push that button, you know what’s going to happen.”

One way the Londerees avoid such situations is by maintaining separate interests: Ben enjoys genealogy research, yard work and city-related activities. Darlene volunteers with the park patrol and in schools, and picks up trash on her walking routes, an activity she considers her “civic duty.”

But before they go about their activities, the Londerees always kiss each other goodbye, and they don’t leave the house without sharing where they’re going and when they’ll be back. They also eat together every night. “When we retired, she said ‘I married you for better and worse but not for lunch,’ ” Ben explains. “We each fix our own breakfast and lunch whenever we want to, but we almost always sit down together at the dinner table.”

And after dinner? Every evening ends with a goodnight kiss.

Roger & Peggy Moe 76, 72

Married Aug. 4, 1957 (52 years)

When the freshmen dormitories at Iowa State University arranged a blind-date mixer, Peggy Ensminger did not want to participate. But then she laid eyes on Roger Moe, a handsome 6-foot-tall redhead.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “I always loved redheads.”

Roger was similarly surprised. “I thought she was gorgeous,” he says. “I lucked out all the way around.”

The duo attended a football game that weekend. “He helped me climb up a hill after the ball game, and he wouldn’t let go of my hand,” Peggy says with a smile. Roger didn’t let go of her heart either; he asked to kiss her on their third date, and she agreed.

“I thought it was wonderful,” she recalls.

Roger wrote a letter to Peggy’s parents asking for her hand in marriage. The response was slow in coming because two of Peggy’s younger siblings had the measles, but Mr. Ensminger eventually replied that he’d be happy to have a redheaded son-in-law so long as he could retire on Roger’s family farm in northern Iowa. Roger and Peggy spent the summer at that very farm.

“I gave his family a lot of humor,” Peggy laughs. She’d grown up near Washington, D.C., and lived abroad in India as a teenager; adjusting to rural life was a challenge. “I’d see a pheasant running across the road, and I’d say ‘There goes a peacock!’ ”

“She was working hard to catch me,” Roger says. “She helped milk, and she washed off the cows. After we were married, she never set foot in the barn again.”

Not long after they wed, Peggy became pregnant, and Roger developed tubercular pneumonia. He was isolated in the school sanatorium for nearly nine months, and doctors instructed he not be disturbed. Peggy didn’t tell him when she had labor pains three months early; instead, she contacted his brother, who posed as her husband because only fathers were allowed to visit the hospital. Roger’s father was also helpful; during a visit to her in-laws’ farm, Mr. Moe insisted pregnant Peggy get some exercise by walking to the barn twice a day. When Peggy refused, “he reached into the coat closest and pulled out the biggest bullwhip you’d ever seen in your whole life.” Peggy decided a walk to the barn sounded just great.

The couple had two boys and one more on the way by the time they finished college. “I promised my dad that if he let us get married, I would graduate,” Peggy says. “The Iowa State motto is ‘science with practice.’ I was majoring in child development, and I was practicing.”

Despite Roger’s work as an engineer, money was tight for the growing family. “I was scared to death I was going to blow it because of the way I was raised,” Peggy says of their different backgrounds. She had been spoiled with servants in India while Roger had grown up without electricity or a bathroom.

But they made do and eventually retired to Columbia – Peggy’s birthplace – in 1994. “I thought we were going to be practically bonded to each other and do everything together,” Peggy says of retirement. “But I realized pretty soon that we both need space.”

Fortunately, their church provided that space. In addition to Sunday services, the Moes are heavily involved with small groups. Peggy meets a gaggle of women every Thursday for coffee – no males allowed. “My theory is that men don’t have as many words a day as women do, so we need to talk a lot more,” she says. “We laugh so much; I really feel that laughter is very healing, really good for the soul.”

Strong faith also helped Peggy through post-polio syndrome – a condition developed from her bout with polio at age 5. “Roger wanted to pray out loud before I went to sleep,” Peggy says. “I’d never prayed out loud, so it was difficult for me. But we have done that every night. We hold hands and we pray together.” This faith – and 13 years of cortisone shots – helped Peggy fight her illness and later battle several mini-strokes, rotator-cuff surgery and epilepsy.

“God was there,” Peggy says. “I felt like I was wrapped in a cocoon of love.”

“You don’t look back, just look ahead,” Roger says. He does the best he can to care for his wife, whether it be driving her to church or to Upscale Resale, her favorite store. During the winter, he moved the deck swing inside near the fireplace and their big TV. “It’s wonderful,” Peggy smiles. “I’m spoiled rotten.”

Roger also spoiled Peggy with a diamond and pearl ring on their 50th wedding anniversary, as well as an Alaskan cruise. But perhaps the most memorable event was an early-morning visit to their church parking lot to remind them of the location where Roger proposed so many years ago. “It’s a different church in a different state, but it was romantic,” Peggy says. The couple took photographs and exchanged gifts.

Even now, 52 years later, Roger says, “When I look at her, I see her as a 19-year-old.”

Peggy has a good explanation: “When I look at him, he looks the same to me. It’s because our vision’s gone a little bit.”

What Is Love?

  • “A compulsive attraction.” – Charlie & Bettie Koelling, married 63 years
  • “When you care about someone so much, you don’t want to be with anyone else. You want to spend your life together; you make a commitment.” – Margaret & Lindy Tarwater, married 59 years
  • “Just a wonderful word.” – Elba & William Womack, married 63 years
  • “Listening to and respect for each other with appreciation and trust and desire to be together.” – Beuna and Ray Lansford, married 64 years
  • “Mutual trust and sharing our feelings with each other.” – Bill & Maryanne Niedergerke, married 66 years
  • “Caring. You look out for the needs of the other person. You’re willing to give your life. Total commitment.” – Roger & Peggy Moe, married 52 years
  • “Respect, communication.” – Betty & Claude Baker, married 64 years

Advice For A Long And Happy Marriage:

  • “Forgive easily, and never go to bed mad.” – Margaret & Lindy Tarwater, married 59 years
  • “You just have to give and take a lot – and love your husband.” – Elba &William Womack, married 63 years
  • “We don’t have a magic pill or the secret.” – Ben & Darlene Londeree, married 52 years
  • “Sharing, caring and participating in all major activities.” – Beuna and Ray Lansford, married 64 years
  • “We felt our marriage should be 50/50, and to maintain that feeling, we tell each other daily that we love each other.” – Bill & Maryanne Niedergerke, married 66 years
  • “You are totally committed. You never, ever think of divorce. You’ll just get through it.” – Roger & Peggy Moe, married 52 years.
  • “Commitment.” – Betty & Claude Baker, married 64 years.