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Lasting love

Valentine’s Day | Five committed couples tell how God has preserved their marriages for more than half a century

Issue: "Iraq: Unity in adversity," Feb. 12, 2005

This Valentine's Day, legions of sweethearts will shower each other with flowers, candy, and honeyed Hallmarks. But while flowers wilt and greeting cards fade, real love lasts. How? To find out, WORLD sought out experts: Five couples, each married for more than 50 years. Despite hardship, these couples have weathered lifetimes together, and combined they represent nearly three centuries of experience in what it takes to make a marriage last. Here are their love stories.

Herman & Mary Fiala

King of Kings Lutheran Church
Omaha, Neb
Married 53 years

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People often ask Mary Fiala how long she and her husband Herman have been married. "54 years," she'll say, then add with mock anxiety: "Do you think it's going to last?"

At this point, it looks certain. Mrs. Fiala, 72, has known Mr. Fiala, 77, all her life. The two were pupils together at a little country schoolhouse in Nebraska where Herman was several grades ahead of her and, she remembers, the same "gentle soul" he is now. One snowy day when she was 6 and Herman was 11, Mary looked in her lunch pail to find only a small packet of fried green tomatoes.

"My family was very poor, though I didn't know it," she says. "I looked at the tomatoes and thought, 'Omigosh, not again.' But Herman Fiala came over to me and said, 'Would you like a piece of my cake? I brought an extra piece today.'

"I said no! I don't know why I said no; I really wanted a piece of that cake!"

Though their families moved to other parts of the county, their parents kept in touch. Then one day, Herman came into the diner where Mary waitressed, earning money for college, and asked her to go to a church festival with him. They married about a year later, in 1951, when he was 24 and she was 19.

At first their ages often outstripped the balance in their bank account. Mrs. Fiala, now a retired teacher, recently purged paperwork she'd saved for decades and found bank statements showing balances as low as $2.50.

The Fialas also had their disagreements. "I'm the firecracker," said Mrs. Fiala: "I'm the one who explodes." But her husband, she said, is still as gentle as the day he offered her his lunch-pail cake. "He thinks things through to decide whether [an issue] is important enough to mention. If he does, he'll tell me, 'This is what I think we should do.'"

Nor is Mr. Fiala a man to shower his wife with flowery endearments. "It's more important to him to bring in flowers that he raised himself," Mrs. Fiala said. "Or to fix something when it's broken. That's his way of showing love, as opposed to a lot of fancy words."

Mrs. Fiala sums up their marital success in a word: God. A grandson in December told Mr. Fiala, "Grandpa, I would like to give the Fiala name to my girlfriend Katie, if that's OK with you." That was fine, Mr. Fiala allowed, as long as God would be in the new marriage, too.

Dick & Bettye Tremmel

Emmanuel Christian Center
Spring Lake Park, Minn.
Married 60 years

Bettye Johnston had known Dick Tremmel when they were kids growing up in northeast Minneapolis. But then the boy she'd known joined the Marine Corps to fight Hitler and Hirohito. When he came home on furlough in 1944, she remembers, he was a man. "I just noticed how he had a strength; he made the decisions: Let's go here, let's do this," she explains. "That's what attracted me."

On their very first date, Dick told Bettye he was a Christian and that he was going to heaven. "I thought, wow! I want this guy."

Dick wanted Bettye, too. They married in September 1944 and he returned to his Marine Corps unit in North Carolina, where she joined him a month later. But they were only together a day and a half before the Corps shipped him out to the South Pacific. Their son was born the next July.

But Mr. Tremmel would not see his baby boy or new bride for more than a year. As war raged across the South Pacific, Mr. Tremmel survived the battle of Iwo Jima, a bloody siege that claimed the lives of nearly every original member of his unit, plus many of their replacements.

"We knew what was coming," Mrs. Tremmel, 80, says now. "We knew whatever we had to do without, we'd do without, and we just hoped and prayed the Lord would bring Dick home."

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