This article is the eighth in a series profiling couples who have been married for at least 35 years. As sociologist Mark Regnerus writes, “Young adults want to know that it’s possible for two fellow believers to stay happy together for a lifetime, and they need to hear how the generations preceding them did it.” It is also important to see that marriages are not always happy all the time, but commitment is crucial.
INVERNESS, Fla.—“Well, we met at a bar,” Dean Dehnel told me with a sheepish grin, speaking of his bride of 62 years.
“But it’s not what you think,” he clarified. While he was in Des Moines, Iowa, for job training, Dehnel and a few of his friends heard of a party—“with girls”—at their hotel’s bar, and there, he said, “everything changed.” Carolyn, a flight attendant, was briefly stationed in Des Moines before an anticipated assignment to her home in New York.
“She quit the airline and stayed on with me,” Dean recalled
“We had so many good times,” Dean said, but then his smile faded and his eyes dropped. “But Carolyn’s dead, you know. She died back in May`.”
For the last eight years of their marriage, Carolyn suffered from dementia and was in full-time nursing care. Dean never left her side.
“I was with her from 7 or 8 in the morning until 7 or 8 in the evening,” he said. “Of course, I had to sleep at home, and I’d have to leave her for a little while on Sunday mornings to go to church.”
Carolyn attended church faithfully as long as she was able.
“Dean is one of my spiritual heroes,” said the Dehnels’ pastor, Ryan Jeffes. “He modeled Jesus’ faithfulness and devotion to his bride, and is a great example to any man on what it means to be a husband.”
Dean chuckled as he reminisced about the early years of his marriage to Carolyn: “There’s a growing-up process, you know, in being married.”
He recalled how one evening, Carolyn threatened to leave him and return to her mother when he came home late after work: “She said, ‘I’ve had it. I’ve had this meal on the table. … I’m going home to Ma,’ and I said, ‘Over that?’ Then I said, ‘If you tell me, I won’t do it anymore, that’s all. It’s very simple.’ So we just got to talking, sitting there, and ate our meal, and after that I’d get home in time for supper.”
According to Dean, the secret to a long marriage isn’t in finding the “right” person. “You find somebody you love, and you get married, and you just live with them,” he said.
The Dehnels never considered divorce. “We grew up in families and communities,” Dean said. “She was from New York and I was from Minnesota, but it was all the same. You said you’re taking them for better or worse, and there are some worse, and there’s some better, but most of it’s better, believe me.”
In her final days, Carolyn couldn’t speak. “But I could still hold her hand,” Dean remembered. When church members came by the nursing home one afternoon to share communion, they found the couple just that way: Carolyn sleeping in her bed while her husband sat quietly by her side in the dimmed room. He wasn’t reading, he wasn’t watching television—he was simply holding her hand.