More couples gain the gold

50 YEARS & STILL COUNTING

January 03, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

They've been married for 50 years, but have known each other for 60. Vivian Batson was a mere 12 the summer Elbert W. Strothers spotted her walking three white spitz dogs on Riggs Avenue. She was stunning. By wending his bicycle around her entourage, he let Vivian know that it was love at first sight. Her angry response: "You old bad boy."

"I just wanted to make an impression," Mr. Strothers says today.

Vivian was still playing with paper dolls and at first showed no interest in her young suitor.

Elbert persisted. "He kept on hanging around until he had to be had," Vivian Strothers says.

The Strotherses are of the generation that gave birth to the baby boom. They said their vows "for better or for worse" in 1942 when, at the threshold of World War II, patriotism, tradition and family were synonymous and divorce was not yet a popular way out of a problematic marriage. People "didn't divorce as much, marriages were very stable," says Barbara Foley Wilson, a demographer with the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

By looking at the national marriage rate and other factors, it is safe to assume that golden anniversaries are on the increase, says Sally Clarke, an NCHS statistician.

In 1942, there were 1,772,132 marriages. The figure marked a statistically significant leap even in the midst of a steady increase in the marriage rate, Ms. Clarke says. In fact, 1942's marriage rate per 1,000 United States residents ranks as the third highest in this century, behind 1946 and 1947, both post-war banner years for matrimony, Ms. Clarke says.

Golden anniversaries may also be on the increase because decades ago couples married at a young age and had a better chance of surviving 50 years of marriage. Add to that an increased life expectancy delivered by health care advances, and you get the formula for a windfall of 50th anniversaries.

An empathetic social climate also nurtured couples who wed in the 1940s. After the war, soldiers had the "GI Bill advantage. That and good economic times gave them a really good start into the middle class," Ms. Wilson says.

Having children was often an extra incentive for staying together, long-married couples say. And, coming of age before the feminist movement reached a critical mass, there was little tug of war between career goals and parenting responsibilities.

Survivors of the Depression, they also learned early how to make hard choices in tough times. Couples who have attained 50 years of marriage speak of the art of "give and take," and "working together." As the Strotherses say, marriage "is a

creative experience."

Today, people are marrying at a later age, Ms. Clarke says. Because of that trend and a steady, national divorce rate close to 50 percent, the 50-year marriage phenomenon is not likely to flourish forever. Once the high divorce rate "started taking off in the late '60s and '70s," the die was cast for a drop in future golden anniversaries, Ms. Wilson says.

But for now, there seem to be many couples proud to announce that they have made it. Here are five, including Elbert and Vivian Strothers, who were wed in 1942, and remain happily married in 1993:

The Strotherses

When they were in their teens, Elbert would come to Vivian's home on Saturdays and scrub floors and perform other household tasks assigned to his girlfriend. "Anything so I could come out to Druid Hill Park and watch him play tennis," Mrs. Strothers says. She rode to the park perched on the handlebars of Elbert's bicycle.

While she was at Morgan State and he was at Coppin State, they continued to date. After marrying, they moved to New York, where Mr. Strothers, who by now had received his Ph.D. in education, was a deputy superintendent in the New York City school system. Over the years, Mrs. Strothers worked as a clerk to the engineering division of the telephone company and as a librarian.

Their first child, born in 1943, lived one day. Fourteen years later, Elbert Jr., now an accountant in Baltimore, was born. Baby Evette followed two years later. Today, she is a professor of journalism in Colorado.

After Mr. Strothers retired in 1983, the couple returned to Baltimore, where they live in a spacious Northwest Baltimore home brimming with art, books, photographs and plaques.

The Strotherses are ageless, lively, chatty and happy to share the secrets of their harmonious marriage. For example, they are protective of the hours they spend alone together. If the doorbell rings unexpectedly, they don't answer. "People have to give us time," Mrs. Strothers says. Even her mother, 96, must call before paying a visit.

And there are times when they need a "cooling-off period" from each other. Then, Mr. Strothers retreats to the apartment upstairs that he has transformed into his "pad," where he writes, reads and spends time with his Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers.

When Mrs. Strothers wants a word with him, she rings the apartment doorbell.

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