Longtime Kent couple have advice for making every day a Valentine’s Day

This year, Marian and Gene Willhite celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary and with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, looked back on their time together.

Sweethearts Marian

Sweethearts Marian

When she first met Gene Willhite nearly 58 years ago, Marian was not, as they say, swept off her feet.

“I wasn’t too impressed,” she says, smile broadening across her face as well as Gene’s.

For one, Gene always wore boots instead of shoes, something Marian and her family would ask him about, though Gene - who to this day is rarely seen in shoes - wouldn’t change his footwear.

But about a year later, the pair were married, despite the footwear issues. This year, the Kent couple celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary and with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, looked back on their time together.

“We met at church,” Marian said.

The pair were both living in Erie, Penn., at the time and members of a church supper club for young singles. The group met at the church for Bible study and then would eat a dinner prepared by members of the group who were paired up almost at random.

One week, Gene and Marian were paired together. Marian says her best friend at the time was dating a roommate of Gene’s, so it made double dating easy and the two seemed to click almost at once.

“It was so easy to be with her,” Gene says. “And she put up with me.”

At the time, Gene worked at General Electric while Marian worked for the American Sterilizer company. On weekends, Marian said she would go home to visit her parents, south of Erie, and Gene soon offered to come down and pick her up to take her to dinner.

Marian said she realized she was in love with Gene while they were at her best friend’s wedding. He proposed soon after.

“It looked like a good deal!” Gene says with a laugh.

The two were married on New Year’s Day 1953 in a small ceremony. Originally, they planned for a June wedding, but decided there was no point in waiting.

“We got along from the start,” he adds. “We didn’t have our ups and downs. We just kind of flowed together I guess.”

The pair do not remember their first Valentine’s Day together and both say that Gene is not really the romantic type (though this year Gene got Marian a silver heart pendant...that he won at the Kent Senior Activity Center...), Marian remembers one year in which Gene gave her a crystal heart.

“I was so surprised,” she says.

Though Gene may not be a romantic, the pair have been generally happy for their nearly six decades together and say the secret to a long, happy relationship is to enjoy each other and to “be flexible” and realize that when the other is upset, you have to respect that.

They also try to let go of things, especially disagreements.

“We don’t carry grudges,” Gene says.

“When it’s over, it’s over,” Marian agrees.

The couple, who have four children, five grandchildren and two step-grandchildren, say they have seen too many divorces because people just can’t see eye to eye or can compromise with their partner.

Along with enjoying each other’s company, the Willhites say that staying active and maintaining their own interests helps keep the relationship going.

While Marian says it is important that they have similar hobbies and interests - for the Willhites it was a lot of athletics - it is also important that they respect each other’s interests.

“You have to be apart from each other,” Gene says.

For example, when Gene retired from Boeing nearly 20 years ago, Marian’s friends thought that would be the end of their going out together for lunches and other events, but the couple agreed that they would be on their own for lunch, freeing them each to do whatever.

But that doesn’t mean they stay apart. The couple have spent many weeks and months traveling, taking part in adventures and learning together through senior hostel programs. During the trips, they spent nearly all of their time together.

To get through difficult times, Gene says you have to “live it day by day,” while Marian says she often turns to prayer, finding strength in a passage from Genesis that says after leaving your parents a man should cleave to his wife and become one flesh, though she admits with a smile that it has been quite some time she has read the passage.

“You haven’t had to, dear,” Gene says, smiling back.

The couple say that preparing yourself for the long haul and accepting that fact helps get through difficult times. They admit they have had their share, though they always work it out.

They are still working together today. Marian is sidelined with an injury and Gene is helping pick up the slack, following Marian’s directions for making dinner and doing the wash.

Gene says he still considers himself the luckiest man in the world, even if the initial butterflies he felt are no longer there.

“You don’t find a keeper very often,” he says.

And after nearly 58 years together (counting the year they first met) the two can finish each other’s sentences, especially when talking about what gets them through and on what advice to offer those who are young and in love.

“When you get old...” he starts.

“...enjoy life,” she finishes.

And despite the boots that nearly put her off at the start, Marian and Gene Willhite says they have had a very happy love affair all these years.

“I don’t think we’d change anything,” Gene says, looking lovingly at his wife.

“Nope,” she says, smiling back.

You can catch the Willhites at one of their favorite places, the Kent Senior Activity Center. The couple has been living happily in Kent since 1961.

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