Bill and Caroline were born in the same month of the same year.
98 years ago.
It’s not every day you meet a 98-year-old — even less common to meet two. Who are married. And have been for 75 years. For this reason, I sought an interview almost as soon as my nearly-retired colleague, Michael, shared that his parents were yet alive and well.
Bill and Caroline sat back on their couch in their south Minneapolis apartment. Walls and carpet were shades of off-white with light green and brown furniture highlighting the living room. Picture frames of family rested on an end table to the couple’s left.
Bill would do most of the talking today. Caroline sat quiet, not as open in her age as she had once been. In all, we touched upon their origins, the highlights of their life, their relationship, and their advice for couples today.
The Early Years
Caroline was born October 24, 1917 in the tiny town Bijou Hills, South Dakota. The nondescript, unincorporated town in the middle of the state would be but a detail in her story, except for the fact that her grandfather founded it right after the Civil War. Thus, when I asked how to spell the name of the town, Caroline carefully and proudly spoke each letter.
The momentum of going back to Bill and Caroline’s birth sent us further back to the stories of their ancestors. And when you’re conversing with 98-year-old people, you’re only a grandparent away from Lincoln.
Bill was born in Minneapolis October 16, 1917, and his grandparents had a tale to tell themselves. Both were mistreated indentured servants in Pennsylvania, he said. So they “ran away and got married.”
In 1861 they arrived in a covered wagon to southern Minnesota, where they settled in Watertown, a small town an hour west of Minneapolis — by car. The road into the city was a difficult route best used by horseback. But it was yet a feather in the cap of Bill’s grandmother’s brother, who had already settled in Watertown and whose friends and himself blazed this road.
Though rough, Bill said his grandparents would later use this road to escape attack. While the country was engaged in the Civil War, Minnesota had its own war with the Dakota Indians. Bill’s grandparents’ family — including his father — had to flee for safety to Fort Snelling in Minneapolis.
Growing up in Minneapolis, Bill’s dad died when Bill was only seven. (Already in his 60s, Bill said his father had a stroke while turning the engine crank.) His mother remarried a real estate/farm manager who had the family bouncing around the Upper Midwest. In North Dakota, Bill had a Prohibition-era memory of drinking alcohol engine fuel.
“Drain it through a loaf of bread to take the toxins out,” he said. Then they’d mix it with Coke.
“I started to drink when I was too young to drink. When I was old enough to drink, I quit,” he quipped.
Bill returned to Minneapolis in his college years, where he had a cousin training to be a nurse at the former Asbury hospital. Her roommate was a young woman named Caroline.
One night Bill’s cousin invited him to go dancing with her roommate and another male friend of theirs. That night 77 years ago, he met the woman sitting next to him today. The foursome didn’t go to a dance hall. They simply took a record player into the lobby of the lady’s housing complex.
“I danced quite a bit with her that night,” he said.
He was smitten. But she wasn’t so certain.
“I chased her ’til she caught me,” said the repeat quipper.
Bill and Caroline were married at 22 in 1940. Bill worked at a deli while Caroline remained in school. Bill remembers their rent for their fourplex unit in southeast Minneapolis.
“$27 a month,” he said.
Not long after, they bought their first house in south Minneapolis for $2,700.
The War Years
“I had a high draft number,” Bill said after I asked about his military involvement.
Further interfering with his being in the service was his health. Bill tried to enlist after Pearl Harbor, but “Marines wouldn’t take me because of my eyesight,” he said.
By 1943, Bill was working as a claims investigator for an insurance company. Then the military recruited him to work in intelligence to investigate applicants trying to work on something called the “Manhattan Project.”
“I didn’t know what we were doing,” he said of the project. However, his mission was clear, and he remembers one success specifically: He found a German spy, a woman romantically linked to an American army lieutenant. She was disclosing to Germany the location of American submarines. And because of Bill’s discovery, she was detained.
“I never found out what happened to her,” he said.
Happily Ever After
After the war, Bill began law school while Caroline worked as a nurse before settling into a being a full-time mom. They raised their three children in suburban Golden Valley, Minnesota in the house they would live in for 42 years. There would then be more historical highlights for the couple.
In 1957, their church, Hennepin Methodist near downtown Minneapolis, became the second Methodist church in the country to integrate. Open hearts availed when circumstances arose.
A north Minneapolis church they supported was slated to be demolished with the installation of the new freeway (I94). The city gave the congregation land to build a new church, “but they didn’t have any money,” said Bill.
So Hennepin Methodist asked the black worshippers to join their congregation. And more than just an invite, on the first Sunday morning of integration, members of Hennepin Methodist drove to their new fellow members’ homes to bring them to church.
“Several became my friends,” Bill stated then added that he helped organize the integration effort.
Through all these decades, though, the most consistent — and remarkable — element has been the marriage. After 75 years, what did they have to say about relationships? Bill jumped at the chance when I asked about their marital success.
“She’s a wonderful woman. I couldn’t have done any better,” he said with a assured smile. Then after a beat, he added, “I’ll tell you why I fell in love with her,” and he nimbly rose from the couch and walked away. A moment later, he returned with a photograph: Caroline as a nurse in her early-twenties.
The photograph took us back to the day they met and revealed the beauty he has seen in her everyday since.
I asked them what advice they had for couples today.
“Marriage isn’t a 50/50 proposition,” declared Bill. “It’s a 60/60 proposition. If you do a little bit more, that’s the answer.”
What about navigating the inevitable difficulties of marriage? I asked if there was ever a time they thought their marriage wasn’t going to work.
Surprised by the notion, Bill responded, “Never even thought about it.”
While they reflected fondly on their 75 years together, they also expressed pessimism about the state of marriage today.
“I suppose that’s true,” Caroline resigned when I brought up the regularity of divorce and strained marriages.
Bill corroborated by saying he recently overheard a woman in their building lobby saying that her husband wants to retire to Central America; she wants to retire to Europe.
And because of this, “She said ‘they’re getting a divorce,’” said Bill. “It just about knocked me over.”
He also brought up the level of distraction in today’s relationships, saying he walked into a restaurant the other day and saw a couple glued to their phones.
“They never look at each other,” he said.
Perhaps romantic relationships are suffering in modern times. But improvement comes when inspired by, and learning from, others’ successes. Bill and Caroline are a shining example.
Toward the end of our conversation, Bill and Caroline posed for one final shot, pressed side-by-side, his right arm wrapping around her waist. After the photograph, they simply remained as they were. And as I asked my final questions, I noticed Bill’s hand along Caroline’s side, his pointer finger delicately grazing her thigh.