In the darkest days of the Depression when they met and fell in love, Chelsey and Anna Lhevan of Fountain Valley gave little thought to the hardships that lay ahead when they discussed marriage. A traditional wedding ceremony was out of the question. Like everyone else they knew, they had no money. Neither did their parents.
It was 1932. She was the 18-year-old daughter of a tailor. He was a 21-year-old plumber making $15 a week. Determined and optimistic, they packed their suitcases, themselves and two chaperones into Chelsey's two-seater Ford coupe a few days before Halloween and eloped.
"We were kids, what did we know?" said Chelsey. It seems they knew plenty. Their courtship lasted six weeks. Their marriage has lasted 54 years and it's still going strong.
Grace and Clayton Ries of Brea kept their marriage a secret for an entire year so that Grace could quietly finish out her junior term at Brea Olinda High School. During that year, only Clayton's brother knew that the high school sweethearts had sneaked away one Saturday morning in December of 1931 to Ventura County to apply for a marriage license. They returned to Ventura the following weekend to awaken a minister so they could exchange vows and drive home before being missed. It's been 54 years and nine months since that day, and they remember it as if it were yesterday.
From those shaky beginnings in the thinnest of economic times, two couples forged lasting relationships with their mates that defy the statistics. They've reached a milestone that few will ever see--50 years of marriage to the same partner. In a county that ranks above the national average in divorce, those who do stick it out for better or for worse belong to a matrimonial minority--making these veteran couples "sort of national treasures," as USC researcher Margaret Campbell put it.
Nationally, spouses in only one in five marriages will stay alive long enough to even get a chance to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversaries, given current projections.
U.S. Census figures show that in 1980, Orange County had 160,913 residents age 65 or older. Less than 45% of them were married. Married couples age 75 and older represented just 12% of the total senior population in Orange County that year--the most recent for which Census figures are available.
What compels couples to stay together five decades and beyond is slowly coming into focus for researchers. What they're learning is something many veteran couples already know: Love is only one piece of the puzzle. And to many in this older generation, ending a marriage was never a consideration.
Sprinkled throughout the county are couples who have glided past the 50-year mark with no thought to divorce except when it happened to others--such as their children.
"In our day, you never thought of getting divorced," said Eva Schneider, 78, of Costa Mesa. She and her husband, Charles, 79, recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.
Study at USC
However, one study, begun in 1971 and still under way at USC's Andrus Gerontology Center, has yielded some preliminary data that suggest, not surprisingly, that those who are better off financially, physically and psychologically are more likely to stay married than those who are not.
Campbell, an Andrus research associate and past project director of the USC Longitudinal Study of Three Generations, said the findings are based on the study's national sampling of 2,044 respondents.
Rosalie Gilford, who heads the Gerontology Program at Cal State Fullerton, has been studying marital happiness along the life course ever since she joined the USC project as a student. She now has a doctorate in sociology, and, in addition to her teaching duties at Cal State, she remains a research associate on the USC project.
"You ask people why they've stayed together and they respond as if the marriage has a life of its own," she said. "One of the first things people mention in an interview is a feeling of pride that they have managed to maintain their marriage through thick and thin."
But how? Couples cite a variety of unscientific reasons.
"I love her," said Ries matter-of-factly of his 72-year-old wife, who was a bride at 17.
"After 50 years, I go along," said Chelsey Lhevan, winking at his wife, Anna. "We don't argue."
"We have the same hobbies, we like the same friends and we like to help people," said Eva Schneider.
"We never get under each other's feet," observed 91-year-old Lloyd Richards of Laguna Niguel of his 69-year marriage to Mary, five months his junior.
The researchers' most current data, gathered in 1984 from seniors first surveyed in 1971, offer additional clues to why some marriages last.
'Children Put a Strain'
"Timing and their transition to marriage and parenthood seem to be important," said Campbell of USC. "The older they got married and the older they were when their first child was born, the more likely they are to stay married."