Seventy years ago this week, a 28-year-old military pilot named Lemuel “Arthur” Lewie Jr. and his girlfriend, a beautiful 18-year-old Baltimore high school senior named Reva Goodwin, visited a courthouse in South Carolina and got married in a quiet ceremony.
They didn’t tell their parents; Reva’s mom and dad thought she was too young. Time has proved them wrong.
The Lewies, now 98 and 88, celebrated seven decades of marriage in a ceremony in front of more than 70 people in Baltimore on Saturday afternoon.
Guests at the bash included children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends and family members from as far away as South Carolina, California and Hawaii.
They all looked on as the Lewies renewed the vows they exchanged on Aug. 28, 1948.
“My granddaughter once asked me, ‘Grandma, where are the pictures of your wedding?’ ” Reva, a retired longtime arts educator, said moments after once again pledging to continue loving and caring for Arthur till death parts them.
“I just told her, ‘There aren’t any, honey, we eloped!’ Today’s the first time we’ve had it all — the pictures, the reception, everything. It’s wonderful.”
In many ways, the occasion – a luncheon at Martin’s West the family dubbed “A Timeless Romance” — had the feel of more than just personal or family history.
Lemuel Lewie, Jr., known to friends as Arthur, was not just any military flier. He served with the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces.
The unit, comprising the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the Army Air Forces, became legendary both for their elite skills and for the fact that they carried out their missions at a time when much of the nation — including the federal government and the military — was still largely segregated by race.
Trained in rural Tuskegee, Ala., and known as “Red Tails” for the distinctive patterns painted on their planes, these airmen and their staff were subjected to discrimination inside and outside the military even as they went about achieving legendary status.
Arthur, who grew up in Columbia, S.C., always aspired to be a pilot, and he met the military’s rigorous academic and physical requirements for aviators shortly after graduating from college in 1941, but racial prejudice hindered his advancement to Tuskegee until 1945.
He won qualification as a bombardier, led training missions in the U.S. and used his math skills as a unit administrator during the war.
His memory is failing a bit, but he can easily summon tales of his time in the service. One of fewer than 100 surviving Tuskegee Airmen, and the only unit member still living in Baltimore, he has won numerous medals and been a guest at the White House.
Reva knew little about the unit in the summer of 1947 when she and her three sisters visited Columbia, S.C. But when Arthur came by her grandmother’s house to visit “the pretty girls from Baltimore,” she was as drawn to him as he was to her.
“He was tall, slender and handsome with dashing, blue-green eyes and reddish hair,” she recalled Saturday.
“I was robbing the cradle, but she had everything – good looks, a good shape, and she came from a good family,” he replied, laughing. “I always knew what I wanted and knew how to get it.”
He proposed after three days, putting his bombardier’s ring on her finger.
After he completed a graduate degree in chemistry – and after she graduated from high school – the couple moved in together in Baltimore, by that time with the full approval of their families.
He spent a year teaching at a veterans’ trade school, then took a job as a science teacher at Carver Vocational Technical High School, where he worked for 28 years.
Reva, a sculptor and painter, taught art and art education for decades in the Baltimore City Public Schools.
At first, Reva said, she had little interest in Arthur’s lifelong love of horticulture, but soon she found herself helping him grow roses and dahlias in the back yard. He had thought little about art, but he soon grew enamored of her wall hangings, carvings and stained-glass works.
They grew ever closer as they attended demonstrations together during the early civil rights movement, shared interests in music and world travel and music, attended church and raised Marcia Lewie Thompson, their only child, and served as steady influences on her children, Candice, Troy and Christel, all now adults.
The years became testament to what Reva calls the ABCs of a good marriage: “doing things together, loving each other, respecting each other, and sharing interests.”
On Saturday, family members took turns stepping to a microphone to read poems and share thoughts in honor of the couple, who sat at a table at the front of the ballroom, both dressed in white.
“Let’s take a second to appreciate what 70 years of marriage looks like,” their granddaughter, Christel Thompson, said. “[It means] 25,550 days, 13 presidents, five major U.S. wars,” and that the relationship is “older than the microwave oven, cellphones, video games, ATMs, Kevlar, GPS and pacemakers.”
Christel grew up wanting to become a pilot like her grandfather. She’s now a captain in the U.S. Army.
But guests agreed the marriage has been about far more than quantity.
Troy Thompson, a professional model, said his grandparents have served as “perfect role models – perfect citizens and community members, people with perfect morals and values. Thanks to them, if I was doing anything wrong, I knew better.”
Candice Thompson, a parole and probation officer with the Maryland Department of Public Safety, said they taught the rest of the family the importance of hard work and discipline, but did so in an affectionate, forgiving way.
“They’re very liberal for older people, but they’re so traditional, if that makes sense,” she said.
It certainly made sense Saturday. As Marcia, a retired radiologist who is now a minster, read Reva and Arthur their vows of renewal, the two held hands and smiled.
When it was over, Arthur had tears in his eyes.
“I’d do it all over again,” he said.