From "The Tulsa World," Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Couple's marriage, noted during centennial season, may be the state's longest

World Staff Writer

BRISTOW -- More than one newspaper reporter has been knocking on Gene Coleman's door lately, not to mention a magazine writer and a couple of TV producers.

And when they knock, they have to wait a little while for Coleman to get up and answer.

"My knees are 96 years old," he apologizes when he answers the door. "And they don't move as quick as they used to."

He lives with his wife, Elinor, 94, the two of them alone in a one-story clapboard house with a cuckcoo clock above the couch, ticking off the minutes.

"Mostly," he said, "we sit here and look at each other."

But he says it with a smile, because he doesn't think it's boring to sit and look at each other. He thinks it's a blessing.

"At our age," he says, "we're lucky that both of us are still here to look at."

Lately, it seems, a lot of people have been coming to look. On top of newspaper and magazines stories, a TV crew plans to spend Tuesday morning at the house to mark the couple's official 77th wedding anniversary.

"We're big shots now, big-shot celebrities," Coleman jokes. "I tell you, since the 29th of September, I've answered more questions than George Bush."

That was the day he and his wife went to the Tulsa State Fair, where officials had organized a banquet for people who have been married more than 50 years. And of all the couples there -- "it seemed like a thousand people, to me," Coleman says -- no one had been married longer than them.

So in this, Oklahoma's centennial year, when everything extraordinary old seems especially newsworthy, the Colemans are making headlines as having one of, if not the, longest marriages in Oklahoma.

The funny thing is that although everyone else seems to be making a big deal out of it, after the reporters and the TV crews leave Tuesday the Colemans have nothing planned but to sit on their couch and look at each other.

For them, Nov. 28 is like any other day. It just so happens that 77 years ago, Nov. 28 fell on Thanksgiving Day. And that is the day that, for 77 years, they have celebrated their anniversary.

That was the day, last week, when Elinor Coleman found her best tablecloth and brought out her finest china. They lit candles and sat down to a quiet dinner, the two of them alone in their small house, where a cuckcoo clock ticks off the minutes.

'The girl for me': A couple of generations ago, if a boy from one small town wanted to date a girl from another small town, people were suspicious.

"They would think maybe he wasn't the kind of fellow you would want to date your daughter," Coleman explains. "Maybe that's why he had to leave his own town to find a girl."

A friend of his found himself in that situation -- wanting to date a girl from another town but facing reluctant parents.

To gain permission, his friend set up a blind double-date -- he brought Coleman, and his girlfriend brought Elinor.

However, it turned out that Coleman had seen Elinor before.

"I was at a box supper," he remembers. "I was sitting on the second row from the front, and I heard somebody behind me drop a chair. I turned around to see what was happening, and there was the prettiest girl I ever saw."

Call it a coincidence. Or luck. Or fate. Or a miracle. But somhow, months later, the face he couldn't forget was now his blind date.

"I knew it right then," he says. "That was the girl for me."

It was Easter 1929, and for their date the foursome went to a song service and potluck dinner at a little country church. Thanksgiving was only seven months away.

'Only God knows': Coleman sits on the couch with his arm around his wife; her hand rests gently on his knees. After 77 years, they still sit together like newlyweds.

"When we got married," Elinor Coleman says, "people got married to be married. They made a vow, 'until death do us part,' and we didn't feel like we could break that vow."

Their marriage wasn't perfect, she said, "because perfect doesn't exist."

"I had to forgive him for not being perfect, and I'm sure he had to forgive me for not being perfect."

Coleman nods.

"In 77 years," his wife continues, "there's a lot to forgive."

Coleman nods again. Even more than forgiving each other, he says, they had to stand together through life's turmoils.

During the Great Depression, he cut timber from sunrise to sunset for $1 a day. He didn't always know what he was going to feed his young family.

"When things got really bad, we couldn't get mad at each other. We had to pray," he says. "Over the years, we've trusted in the Lord more than we trusted in ourselves."

The worst turmoil came in 1992, when one of their sons died from a heart attack at 52.

"You never get over losing a child, no matter how old the child is," Elinor Coleman says. "Emotionally, that's as bad as it gets."

They have two other sons, five grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren. The family stretches from New Mexico to Texas to Florida.

None of them could make it to the little house this year to celebrate the 77th anniversary.

"We understand," Elinor Coleman says. "They have their lives to live. But it would have been nice."

Thursday, after the candles were blown out and the fine china was washed and the best tablecloth was put away, the Colemans sat in the living room, looking at each other, while the cuckcoo clock ticked away.

And the phone rang.

"We spent the rest of the night talking to our kids and grandkids," Elinor Coleman says. "I think it was a very good anniversary."

Coleman nods again.

He says, "We've decided that we want to have at least three more and make it to our 80th."

But his wife shakes her head: "We can't control that. Only God knows."

Coleman responds: "But we can try. We can try."

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