The key to a successful marriage

GLADSTONE – By today’s standards, when a bride who is barely 16 marries someone who is too young to obtain his own marriage license, the odds of their marriage being successful are rather slim.

But don’t tell that to Lewis and Shirley Ware of Gladstone. The couple recently celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary and will be looking at number 70 within seven months.

Both residents of the Battle Creek area in their youth, Shirley first met her future husband over a game of Monopoly when she was only 13 years old. Little did she know that she would be married to him by the time she was 16.

“I was babysitting for the children of my stepsister and Lewis was living with his sister right across the street,” Shirley said. “I was done babysitting and me and my stepsister’s niece were playing Monopoly on the porch when Lewis and his buddy came over and asked if they could play with us.”

Barely 18, Lewis lived with his sister while he worked at United Steel and Wire Company, a company that manufactured refrigerator shelving. “I guess he thought I was older than I actually was,” Shirley explained.

Despite her young age, a friendship grew between the couple and Lewis would occasionally take Shirley to a nearby drug store that featured a soda fountain to enjoy a malt together after he got home from work.

“Sometimes we went in his truck but it was in the early 1940s and the war was on so gas was rationed so we didn’t drive too often,” Shirley said.

Lewis enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and underwent his preliminary training in Chicago. Shirley said she sometimes made the trip from Battle Creek to Chicago by bus on Sunday in order to spend the day with him before returning home at the end of the day. After his training was complete, Lewis was relocated to Florida where he began gunnery school in Jacksonville. Within a short time, he proposed to Shirley.

When the couple became engaged, Shirley said her mother wasn’t at all in favor of the marriage. Not only did she object because of her daughter’s young age, but she wasn’t at all convinced that Lewis was the one who wanted to get married. It took a personal letter from him to convince his future mother-in-law that he was serious about marrying her daughter.

Shirley said her grandmother was even more cautious. Smiling at the memory, she said, “I planned to travel to Florida by train and my grandmother told me that if I didn’t get married by the next day after I arrived, I was supposed to get on the next train back home.”

When their wedding date was set, Shirley said she made the two-day journey to Florida. With many members of the military traveling by rail across the country, she was very touched when several servicemen gave up their seats in order for her to have an entire seat to herself to sleep on during the trip.

“Instead of two of them together in a seat, they would sit with three of them together,” Shirley said, adding with a smile, “They said they wanted me to be real pretty and well rested by the time I got to Florida.”

But Lewis’ letter to Shirley’s mother wasn’t the only one he needed to secure before he could marry his intended bride. Because, at age 20, he was not legally old enough to marry, he needed a letter of consent from his own parents in order to obtain a marriage license.

“It arrived the day of our wedding,” Shirley said.

The couple exchanged their vows on Sept. 17, 1943.

Asked if she was nervous about being so far away from home and preparing to be married, she glanced at her husband of 69 years and smiled, saying, “I thought he looked real sexy in his naval uniform.”

The couple’s first living quarters was in a rented room without even a shared kitchen to prepare their meals. Shirley said the room cost $8 but she was uncertain whether it was once a month or every two weeks when Lewis received his paycheck. It wasn’t long before she obtained a job for herself. Despite the inconvenience of their living quarters, Shirley explained Lewis ate his main meal of the day on the naval base and she ate during her lunch hour on the job. When Lewis returned “home” at the end of the day, the couple would go out to get a bite to eat at a nearby drugstore.

In time, when the couple was expecting their first baby, they moved into a small rented home.

“We didn’t have a stick of furniture, not even a stove or icebox,” Shirley said. “I remember that we used to put two crates up to the counter so we could have someplace to eat.”

Lewis grinned when he explained he supplemented the couple’s income by giving haircuts to other servicemen, particularly later one when he was deployed. As one of 11 children, Lewis said it was a skill he learned to help out his family.

“Sometimes I’d get a quarter and sometimes 50 cents,” he recalled.

“Sometime it was only 15 cents,” Shirley added. “But both of us grew up in hard times and work was scarce so kids did just about anything they could to earn money to help their families.”

As his work in the Navy evolved and he advanced to the rank of aviation machinist mate, Lewis said his next assignment was patrolling the shipping lanes in the Pacific Ocean. Because of his extended deployment, Shirley returned to Battle Creek where she moved back in with her mother.

When his four years of military service was over, Lewis rejoined his wife in Battle Creek and he went back to work at the wire company.

“In those days, companies held jobs open for the servicemen,” Lewis said.

During his 40 years of employment, Lewis worked hard to advance his education and thus advance with the business.

“I took mail-order courses and became an industrial engineer,” Lewis said with obvious pride. He retired at the age of 59.

The Wares are the parents of three children, Vivian Lea Ayers of Gladstone, Jeff Ware of Rapid River, and the late Bruce Ware. They also have two grandchildren and four great-children.

At the urging of their son and daughter, Lewis and Shirley moved to the local area within this past year and are making their home in Westridge Heights in Gladstone.

“We used to vacation up here when we were kids,” said Vivian.

When asked what advice they would give to an engaged couple today, Shirley was quick to answer, “In marriage there’s a lot of give and take. Sometimes I might win one argument but the next time he might win. You can’t win them all.”

Lewis said he learned quickly to avoid escalating their disagreement by leaving the house.

“I’d go outside and do chores or something,” he said.

Because of their “hard-scrabble” life growing up, Shirley added, “Learn that there’s seldom any extra money. We didn’t have an awful lot but we didn’t expect a lot either. That way you’re not disappointed.”