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50 YEARS & STILL COUNTING More couples gain the gold

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Granting each other space and time seems only to enhance their love. A little mystery is good, Mrs. Strothers says. "I'm still learning him, and he's still learning me."

He makes her breakfast daily. For their 50th anniversary bash at Martin's West, she made him a gold vest to match her homemade dress. He sews on all detached buttons. She prepares wonderful dinners. He pours out her cough medicine and administers it with a spoon. They go out to lunch together.

After all these years, marriage is like breathing for the Strotherses. "I want to live forever now," Mrs. Strothers says. "It's so good and so easy."

The Copelands

Helen Vaughn Copeland was reared by an "old fashioned aunt" in Greensboro, N.C. Even as a senior in college, she was not

permitted to ride in cars with young men. So Henry Copeland "drove right beside me as I walked."

"Just the minute I saw him, I just knew he would be my husband," Mrs. Copeland says of Henry, who lets her do the talking in an interview. "You know, we are [both] Christian-hearted people. . . . We were just so compatible. He's the person I'd always wanted."

Helen followed Henry to Baltimore. He lived with a brother, and she lived with a girlfriend. They eloped.

They found a room for $4 a week and were deliriously happy. "My husband had a nice job. Some days, he'd pretend like he had a toothache so he could stay home with me," Mrs. Copeland says. "We'd go to the Royal Theater and sit there and eat potato chips and candy bars."

Soon, they discovered a baby was on the way. They moved into larger quarters and settled down.

Mr. Copeland worked at Bethlehem Steel. His wife stayed home with their son. Later she went to work at Franklin Square Hospital as a nurse's aid. From there, she went on to a doctors' group, where she worked as an assistant to the physicians for 26 years.

"We've had ups and downs, had hard times," Mrs. Copeland says. But, "We never had anyone we could go to, we just worked it out."

The Baltimore couple still jump in their car and travel to places as far away as New Orleans. They enjoy their friends and celebrating the birthdays of their five grandchildren.

PD "I'm so lucky," Mrs. Copeland says. "I've had a beautiful life."

The Loverdes

Within months of each other, the two Loverde brothers eloped, and neither told the other -- or their family. Both feared the ire of their Old World Italian mama, who didn't want them to leave the nest yet.

Soon enough, word was out. Joseph Loverde had married his childhood friend, Josephine LaRocca. And Louis Loverde had married Lucille Price, whom he had met through a mutual friend.

When the news broke, "My mother raised hell," Lou Loverde says. He told his new wife, "Don't pay attention to my mother, she thinks you married me for my money."

Which couldn't be further from the truth. Army-bound, he didn't have a penny. It was Lucille, employed at one job or another since she was a young girl, who earned a whopping $7 a week. They spent it all on their marriage celebration: a corsage for the bride and the matron of honor, streetcar fare to Gywn Oak Park, where they saw Gene Krupa at the Dixie Ballroom, and two Cokes. Broke by evening's end, they had to walk home.

Shortly after they married, Lou enlisted in the Army and Lucille moved into her mother-in-law's home. As often as she could, she would escape two doors away to Josie's house, where "the girls would come over and smoke their cigarettes," her sister-in-law says.

Lucille -- owner of a Catonsville beauty shop since 1959 -- and Lou Loverde have said their wedding vows to each other three times. The first time, a justice of the peace -- a "nice old man" -- married them. Later, they had a Catholic ceremony. After Lucille converted to Catholicism, they married again. For their 50th anniversary, she wanted to reaffirm their vows a fourth time. "No way!" her husband said.

Lucille and Lou have no children, but boast nine godchildren.

Josie and Joe Loverde knew each other as children and got reacquainted at his grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary celebration. Soon, they were dating, and Josie remembers that her beau often bought six bags of peanuts at the movies and stashed them in all available pockets. To her wonderment, he munched his way through every picture show.

The two went on to have five children. Today, they have 14 grandchildren, five great grandchildren and "a great, great [grandchild] coming up."

After all these years, they've settled into a comfortable life with its own sacred rituals. Nearly every night, Josie Loverde prepares pasta for her husband. It is "his main thing. He lives for that and a bowl of salad with a lot of tomatoes in it."

Joe is proud of their enduring marriage. "Why shouldn't I be?" he asks. "I'd like to be the first one to go for 100 and really make history."

The Herrings

How do you reach 50 years together?

"Lord have mercy, I don't know, just by endurance and all," Sallie Herring says of her marriage to her husband, Zelotes.

It has been much more than a matter of endurance for the Herrings. "Oh yes, we did all right together. We had our ups and downs like everybody else. We always got over it, got through it," Mrs. Herring says.

They met in North Carolina, where she and her family worked on Zelotes' father's farm. Zelotes Herring remembers his first impression of the country girl who would become his wife. "She looked kind of strange," he remembers. But after they got acquainted, Mr. Herring realized he and Sallie had much in common.

Soon, both fathers granted them permission "to court."

Zelotes Herring came north to work, and he corresponded with Sallie. After a visit home and a tearful goodbye at the train station, "I asked her father for her hand," Mr. Herring says. Soon, Sallie joined Zelotes Herring in Baltimore, where they were married.

Their life in Baltimore was interrupted by a return to North Carolina to run the farm for a year, and Sallie Herring's return to college to get a degree in education. Back in Baltimore, her husband worked two jobs to get her through school.

In 1979, Mrs. Herring retired from her teaching job. In 1984, Mr. Herring, a truck driver, retired after 41 years on the job.

Today, they are both extremely active in their neighborhood church, the Gospel Tabernacle Baptist in West Baltimore. Mrs. Herring recently retired from her longtime assignment as Sunday school teacher. Her husband, a church trustee, serves on the usher board, drives the church bus and maintains church property. He is also a block captain for his neighborhood recycling effort.

"We're so busy, we don't have time to fuss at each other," Mrs. Herring says.

Again, it is more than that: Mrs. Herring remembers when she became ill several years ago. Her husband stayed home, didn't even go fishing. "He had to do everything," she says.

And he did it with love. "The Lord blessed me with him," she says.

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