Couple to celebrate 78th wedding anniversary
By MARSHA KEEFER, Beaver County Times
Jun. 16, 2018
BEAVER FALLS, Pa. (AP) — They sit side by side on a love seat in their well-appointed condominium in Chippewa Township.
Their eyes meet. He reaches for her nail-polished hand and cups it tenderly in his. They smile.
She loves sweets. He knows it. He wooed her with chocolates when courting.
He takes a maple-nut Danish — her favorite — from a box filled with fresh-baked pastries and breaks it in half. He feeds a bite to her; she feeds a bite to him.
You'd think Ralph and Mary Veon are newlyweds.
Far from it. But this poignant interaction bears witness that true love endures. And theirs has. For 78 years.
Some perspective: Only 6 percent of married couples made it past their 50th, according to a 2011 report from the U.S. Census Bureau. And since couples today marry later, accomplishing what the Veons have is less likely.
The estimated median age at first marriage is the highest ever, the bureau said: 27.4 for women and 29.5 for men last year. In 1920, it was 21.2 for women; 24.6 for men.
The Veons were 22 when they exchanged wedding vows June 15, 1940, a promise Ralph said was inviolable.
Their secret is "following the Lord's ways," he said. "You become one when you're married. We are one until we die."
Good health has been on their side, too, Mary said. "The Lord's been very good to us."
You don't have to be Einstein to calculate another feat: Both celebrate 100th birthdays this year — Ralph on Aug. 4; Mary on Sept. 10. Consider the life expectancy for a man born in 1918 was 36.6 years; 42.2 for a woman.
Of course, more Americans are living to 100, thanks to advances in health care, nutrition and physical fitness. Good genes play a role, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 72,197 Americans 100 or older in 2014, up 44 percent from 2000.
That a husband and wife both would live to 100, however, is very rare.
Using Social Security Administration actuarial tables from 1918, the probability of a female living to 100 is 1.87 percent; that of a male is 0.45 percent, said Ron Gebhardtsbauer, head of the actuarial science program at Pennsylvania State University's Smeal College of Business.
The probability that a couple would both still be alive at 100 is 0.0084 percent. "That is one chance in 10,000," he said.
They Veons have a few years to go before smashing records, however.
They have to live almost another quarter century to surpass Jeanne Louise Calment, whom Guinness World Records claims is the oldest person ever.
Calment, born in France in 1875, lived to 122 years and 164 days — "the greatest fully authenticated age," Guinness said — and died in 1997 in a nursing home in Arles, still of sound mind and wit.
The Gerontology Research Group, a global group of researchers who track supercentenarians (those documented to be older than 110), said that as of its last update (May 29), Chiyo Miyako of Japan, born May 2, 1901, is the world's oldest at 117. She attributes her longevity to drinking rice wine and eating eels, but eschewing smoking.
The GRG lists Lessie Brown, 113, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, as the oldest person in the United States; ninth oldest in the world. Lucille Treccase, who was born Oct. 18, 1905, and resides at Concordia Lutheran Ministries in Cabot, is listed as the oldest Pennsylvanian at 112 years.
The Veons are just about nine years shy of the longest marriage recorded by Guinness World Records — that of Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher of North Carolina, who had been married 86 years and 290 days as of Feb. 27, 2011, when Herbert died at age 105. Zelmyra died two years later at age 105.
Still, the Veons defy the odds; members of a rarefied echelon when it comes to longevity — both in age and marriage.
'We need to get married'
The Veons came from large families: Ralph the fourth eldest of six siblings; Mary the eldest of six girls. Both were reared on farms — Ralph in Darlington; Mary in Enon Valley.
Longevity runs in their families. Last November, Ralph's brother, Roy H. Veon, died at 101. A brother is 96; a sister, 98. Mary's mother died at 95; her father at 88. And three of Mary's sisters are in their 90s.
Ralph and Mary met freshman year at Enon Valley High School.
He, tall and thin with dark, wavy hair and blue eyes, was "a good-looking, young fella," Mary said, "clean cut, that's for sure."
Mary, with her warm smile and naturally curly hair, was "attractive," Ralph said, "both in looks and her actions."
They dated during high school — movies and basketball games.
After graduating in 1936, Mary enrolled in nursing school at Suburban General Hospital.
Every Saturday night, Ralph drove to Bellevue to visit her and once got a $15 speeding ticket.
One day, he decided their courtship had been "long enough," and told Mary "we need to get married."
He proposed at her parent's house; they married in the parsonage of Enon Valley Presbyterian Church.
It was a small wedding. His brother, Roy, and her sister, Betty, were attendants. Afterward, the families gathered at her parent's home for a roast chicken dinner.
The couple drove in Ralph's 1936 Chrysler to Niagara Falls where they honeymooned for a week, and then started life together in a home in Enon Valley.
Ralph started a business — Ralph A. Veon Inc., a coal and clay mining company in Darlington — with one truck, but eventually grew the firm to employ 77.
World War II briefly interrupted momentum when Ralph served as a platoon sergeant with the Army Corps of Engineers in Japan.
In those early days after the war, it was "work, work, work, work," he said, to build his company, often 12-hour days. But he always was industrious. He started working at 10 as an elementary school custodian, he said, making $3 month, but lost the hard-earned money in the 1929 stock market crash.
Mary was a nurse for just a few years, and then quit to raise their three children: Carol Whalen of Enon Valley; Lynn Allen of DeLand, Fla.; and Roderick Veon of Atlanta, Ga.
Ralph was active in the church, serving as elder and Sunday school teacher. He volunteered as a firefighter and school board member.
They enjoyed playing board games with a church group and still do with family; Rummikub one of their favorites.
The couple and their children traveled extensively — to nearly every state, Ralph said. One of the most memorable for Lynn was Christmas in Florida.
"To leave the North at Christmastime and be on the beach for Christmas — that was pretty amazing," she said.
Every anniversary, Mary and Ralph try to eat out, Mary said, usually at Red Lobster in Youngstown, Ohio, Ralph's favorite. He often gives Mary red roses, too.
They both still have good appetites, and nobody can replicate Mary's Swiss steak, Ralph said, one of his favorite meals. Mary's willing to try new things — mangoes, for example, Lynn said, a tropical fruit her vegetarian grandson introduced. And she always enjoys a bowl of ice cream before bed.
Mary had a bout with cancer years ago and Ralph had a partial hip replacement, but generally their health has been good. Ralph proudly boasts that he has all of his original teeth. And neither takes many medications.
Still, neither expected to live to 100.
Lynn's surprised, too, considering the "bullets" she said her parents dodged.
The year they were born, a flu pandemic known as the Spanish flu hit, the deadliest in history.
The first wave, a milder strain, hit in spring. By fall, a highly contagious wave hit and infected 500 million people worldwide. An estimated 50 to 100 million people died, according to history.com.
Victims were dying within hours or days of showing symptoms. Young children, elderly and those with certain medical conditions were most vulnerable. The pandemic caused the average life expectancy to drop a dozen years.
Penicillin, an antibiotic heralded to have saved millions, wouldn't be discovered until the Veons were 10. The first polio vaccine wasn't developed until they were 37.
And Ralph escaped capture, injury and death in the war.
The Veons moved to their condo about 15 years ago and are assisted by caregivers.
"They're doing a marvelous job of taking care of them," said Lynn. "We're honoring their wishes. They want to stay in their home. As nice as assisted living can be, this is home. She wants to be in her home. She has a lot of memories here. She doesn't want to let go of any of it."
Lynn and husband, Rubi, arrived last week from Florida, and with other family members hosted an early anniversary celebration June 4.
Naturally, closing in on 100, life has slowed considerably, but Ralph and Mary stay current with news programs, especially FOX News.
"They do devotions every morning after breakfast," said Kylee Kuhn, one of their caregivers.
"They're still the cutest couple," she said.
"They pray before bed. He lays down. She goes and puts her forehead on his forehead. They pray and then they kiss each other and she then lays down with him.
"He had to get a hospital bed in so she had to get one right beside him so they're still right there beside each other. They couldn't separate."
Mary likes to reminisce, Kuhn said, and flips through photo albums and re-reads cards and letters received from family and friends over the years.
And she's still curious about modern technology, telling her daughter she wished she had an opportunity to use a computer.
"She was looking at my cellphone and said, 'I think I could learn to do that,'" Lynn said.
Mary's not one to sit idly by while others have fun, either.
Last year, she spent a few months in Florida with Lynn and Rubi.
"We went to the beach with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren," Lynn said. "I thought she'd just sit and watch everybody else."
But Mary told her daughter, "I need a bathing suit."
So, Mary bought her one — a two-piece tankini.
"She went in the pool and put her feet in the ocean, too," Lynn said.
Likely, Mary will visit the condo's pool this summer.
"We'll get Ralph up there, too, but I don't think we'll get him in a bathing suit," said Lynn.
The downside of living so long, Mary said, is "your friends are mostly gone. It's lonely."
"You have to make younger friends," Lynn quickly countered.
"The first 100 are the toughest ones," Rubi quipped.
Mary acknowledged that "it's been a very good marriage and life."
"That's what I always tell them," Lynn said. "Count your blessings because you have so many."
Information from: Beaver County Times, http://www.timesonline.com/