Celebrating A Love 75 Years Young


Somewhere up in heaven, or wherever she is, Aunt Ella Phibbons is sitting down to a very large dish of crow.

"You won't last six months," she had told her pretty 18-year-old niece, who had just eloped with the charming, ornery neighbor boy.

That was in 1918.

Seventy-five years later, the pretty young niece is 93, her boy next door 95, and not only are Ruth and Nelson Smith still married, they still have that magical bond that every couple believes will last forever, but too often doesn't.

They still talk and laugh together. They tease in an affectionate, good-natured way. "We don't go anywhere without each other," Ruth says. They never go to sleep without kissing good night and saying, "I love you," and they wouldn't dream of having separate beds.

If Nelson snores, Ruth says, "Well, I do have one ear that's deaf."

This Friday marks the Smiths' 75th anniversary. To celebrate, they're giving themselves a big party Saturday night at the Old South Country Club in Lothian.

In the living room of the Galesville house where Nelson was born, the Smiths are talking about how they met and how they've stayed together, and happy, for so many years. They look wonderful -- she with her hair piled up and her nails polished, he in gray slacks and suspenders.

Ruth says young couples constantly ask her advice on how to make a marriage work. "I say, 'Honey, you got to give and take, and lots of times you got to give more than you take.'

"We've had our ups and downs, and we've had our disagreements." But they never went to sleep angry, not once. "If we were mad, we made it up before we went to bed."

And none of this business where the husband goes to his ball games and the wife to her church group and all they really do together is sleep and pay bills. Married people, they believe, ought to be companions.

The Smiths grew up together in South County in an era of two-room schoolhouses, horses-and-buggies and outdoor privies. They attended the same school until the eighth grade, which was as far as anybody went back then. Then they went to work; Nelson had a job on a steamboat when he was 14.

They didn't particularly like each other for a long time.

Then, as now, Nelson was both handsome and, as Ruth puts it, "the greatest tease in the world." She thought he was too smart for his britches.

As for Nelson, "I had too many other girls to worry about. I had a lot of girlfriends. Too many."

He eventually settled on Ruth for two reasons. "She was right attractive," he says, with long black hair she wore in a braid. And she was convenient.

Ruth remembers the moment their story really started they were standing in front of a big old gate across her family's driveway. "I was on one side of the gate, and he was on the other. He was trying to find out why I broke up with my boyfriend . . . so I asked him why he broke up with his girlfriend, who lived in Baltimore.

"He said, 'Dammit, I don't want to drive to Baltimore no more!'"

So he started dating Ruth. Two years later, they ran off without telling anybody and got married in Rockville. The relatives, Aunt Ella foremost among them, predicted doom.

How wrong they were.

The Smiths came back to Galesville, where Nelson worked as a seafood wholesaler before setting up a pile-driving company, Smith Brothers Inc., in 1920. Ruth stayed home and had three children between 1920 and 1925; after they were grown, she ran Zang's Pier restaurant (now Pirate's Cove) for 20 years. They were happy from day one, despite the fact that they didn't have much. Ruth says her first cabinets were orange crates with gingham curtains in front, her first couch an Army cot.

"We lived on what we had," she says. When she did get a little extra cash -- she'd occasionally do a wallpapering job on the side -- she spent it on Nelson.

"I always liked for him to wear good-looking shirts and ties, so I would take my money and buy that."

Sometimes, Ruth would leave the children with her mother and go with her husband on out-of-town jobs. "She wanted to be with him," says Virginia Woods, the Smiths' oldest daughter.

Whatever troubles they had through the years weren't significant enough to bear remembering. Instead, most of what they remember they laugh about. The way the cold wind used to blow through the chinks in the windows. The women who still like to flirt with Nelson. His favorite trick of giving Ruth a $100 bill for Christmas; then, when she'd put it in a box and forget about it, stealing it and giving it to her again the next year.

"I did that for four or five years," he chuckles. "You never did know a damn thing about it."

The Smiths feel blessed to be living a life this long and this full. Nelson has a little heart trouble, but, other than that, they're in better shape than a lot of people half their age. He still drives locally. She cooks every day and looks after her own house. They play poker and take trips; two years ago, they rode with another couple to a Lions convention in Denver.

Nelson says his doctor has put the kabosh on alcoholic beverages, but that he intends to treat himself to a glass of champagne at their anniversary party.

"It's just a shame," Mrs. Woods says, "that Ella's not here to see it."

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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