LOVE STORIES; Baby boomers saw the divorce rate soar and the marriage rate plummet among their peers -- but some of them managed to build long-lasting unions anyway.


Baby boomers saw the divorce rate soar and the marriage rate plummet among their peers -- but some of them managed to build long-lasting unions anyway.

The current calculated blitz of '60s nostalgia would have you believe that everyone was a tie-dyed-in-the-wool hippie back then. Not true. For every boomer president who probably inhaled, there is a boomer special prosecutor who probably tried to sell you a Bible.

And as free-loving as the '60s now appear through the media's gauzy lens, it was a distinctly unromantic time. A hard rain fell on matrimony, even as it peaked in 1969. The divorce rate soared, and the marriage rate plummeted. The aftershocks of Vietnam and the women's movement are two obvious causes.

The oldest boomers found that the "world had totally changed. Many of those people discovered that all of their expectations [from marriage] couldn't be met," says Cheryl Russell, author of the 1993 book "The Master Trend: How the Baby Boom Generation is Remaking America."

Younger boomers paid heed and delayed marriage.

For African-Americans, celebrating civil rights gains but losing jobs and respect in crumbling urban centers, marriage and divorce statistics are even more dreary.

So how did any couple endure the revolution? Russell says it was "almost the luck of the draw" to find "somebody [with whom] you have something in common. ... And the bond remains despite all this social change around you."

The following Baltimore-area couples have their own ways of explaining their enduring affection.

One couple carved a life together in the midst of a racist society. Another couple was grazed by Vietnam. A third met as political activists.

On this Valentine's Day, though, their stories lead to common ground. Gloria and Thomas "Bunny" Weaver, Kathy and Dennis Curl, Claudia Leight and Dean Pappas all point to similar constants in their marriages: a supportive community of family and/or old friends, and a willingness to change and grow -- together, not apart.

Bunny Weaver and Gloria Shorter grew up in segregated Baltimore, and knew what it was like to drink from separate fountains and suffer ego-crushing slights. They saw their community torn apart by riots after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968. Within their marriage, they worked to build shelter. Today, they are a middle-class, middle-aged black couple who made it through the storm.

At Edmondson High School, Bunny and Gloria had eyes for one another, but never followed through. After graduation in 1966, they bumped into each other from time to time. Finally, at a party, they truly met.

"Didn't you go to Edmondson?" Bunny asked.

"You know I did," Gloria replied.

Smokey Robinson played on the stereo and they danced.

They married in 1970.

At first, Bunny took the "I'm the man and I'm in charge" approach. They soon had a baby son, and he expected his wife to stay home. In a world that often denied black men their dignity, home was one place a man could exert his authority.

After two and a half years, though, Gloria was offered a job as a clerk typist with the Commercial Credit company. "What about the baby?" Bunny asked. Gloria had already secured a place in day care, "just in case."

Bunny remembered that his father always turned his check over to his mother. He knew his mother and two sisters often felt stifled by society's limited expectations for them. He had watched a friend's marriage collapse after six months, because his wife was "not going to have him tell her what she could or couldn't do."

Bunny changed.

A Super Fresh produce clerk for 33 years, he puts it this way: "I can't be right all the time."

Gloria stayed with Commercial Credit for 15 years and recently retired as an executive secretary at USF&G.;

Other current events swirled around the Weavers' union. Bunny was not drafted, but many friends were. He believes he was spared the disillusionment of veterans who could no longer embrace their former way of life. He remembers one buddy, in particular. "He said to me, 'I went away and I came back a real angry man. I went through something I shouldn't have had to go through, and my wife is still living the way we were when we first got married.' "

The Weavers continued to encounter discrimination in their day-to-day lives outside home. But years of practice allowed them to leave their anger at the door, Bunny says. And he held no truck with acquaintances who blamed "the white man" for their own miscalculations. He knew that providing for his family was his responsibility, and there was no way he would use oppression as an excuse for not doing so.

The Weavers live in Bunny's childhood Cherry Hill home. Both 50, they continue to socialize with the same high school friends. Their faith in God is strong. So are their ties to two grown children and two grandchildren.

And Bunny likes to joke that he is more often than not the odd man out in family disagreements.

Dennis Curl and Kathy Sabotka grew up insulated from the causes of the day -- the civil rights crusade, the women's movement, the sexual revolution and Vietnam -- until Dennis was drafted.

Dennis' experience in Vietnam could have crippled their new marriage, but he was lucky. He wasn't injured in Vietnam, and returned ready to truly begin married life.

Kathy and Dennis were 15 when they met in 1963 at a Dundalk High baseball game. Initially, she wasn't impressed. They got better acquainted at a Civic Center hootenanny and began to date. When Dennis enrolled at Clemson University and Kathy at Towson State College, they agreed not to be tied to one another. During breaks, though, they always reunited.

Then, Dennis, uninspired by his studies, dropped out, even though his father warned that he would be drafted. The young man didn't think it could happen, but it did, almost immediately.

"I couldn't believe it was real," Kathy says. She knew Dennis might die. They started paying attention to the news. They decided to marry after Dennis returned from basic training.

It never occurred to Kathy that her husband might be maimed or psychologically damaged, a fate that would in some ways have been worse than dying. In three months, they were married. Then Dennis was shipped overseas.

Kathy lived at home, finished college. She didn't feel married, except when mud-encrusted letters arrived. She remembers being taunted by anti-war protesters on campus for what they saw as apathy. My husband is over there, she told them. And he might die.

Eleven months later, he returned, ready to resume college at Clemson. By now, Kathy was teaching school and was denied a leave of absence to go with him. She didn't want to have to choose between losing her job and accompanying her husband. So she got pregnant and received a maternity leave. Once again, the war indirectly forced Kathy to fast-forward her plans.

After Dennis graduated, the couple came back to Maryland, where they were enveloped by family and friends and raised two sons.

They are in their early 50s now. Dennis is a vice president of property development at the Anne Arundel Medical Center. Kathy is a library resource teacher at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School.

The Curls, who live in Crownsville, reflect on those times. They say the 1960s left no permanent stamp on their lives. Yes, with Dennis' Vietnam stint, the couple grew up quickly. They also came to see the war as wrong. (Today, Kathy says she would steer her sons to Canada rather than see them fight in such a war.) Kathy was a working mom when many stayed home. And they realize how crucial the Civil Rights movement was.

But don't look to them for tales of political fervor or rock festivals. The Curls say those noisy times were a murmur, faintly heard inside their secure and contented home.

In some ways, Claudia Leight and Dean Pappas couldn't be more different from the Curls: The revolutionary spirit of the 1960s defined their relationship and is alive in their marriage today. It is "part of who we still are," says Leight, as she and her husband sit on the couch in their Mount Washington home.

Claudia was a Goucher College student and feminist when she first met Dean in Baltimore's anti-war community.

They didn't become a couple until the early 1970s.

Neither was "ambitious in the conventional way." Dean, 59, taught at an experimental high school, and Claudia worked for a Baltimore-based magazine called Women: A Journal of Liberation.

The couple waited 10 years to get married, believing, like many peers, that they "didn't need the law to say our relationship is valid." But they also learned to be pragmatic. "We figured we weren't proving anything by not being married," and a legal bond afforded a certain amount of security.

Meanwhile, the "movement" had exacted a toll on the relationships of friends and associates.

Dean, a physics teacher at Friends School, and Claudia credit the informal counseling of friends with helping them navigate their own marital ups and downs. They remain ensconced in a community of like-minded friends, some of whom migrated together from the Charles Village neighborhood to Mount Washington.

"We made the choices that were best for us, but always with a sense of being a part of something bigger and better," says Claudia, a counselor at Morgan State University.

Claudia and Dean remain active in cooperative ventures like a shared monthly meal with friends. They support community causes and work for social change.

The couple also works to instill their values, struck in the '60s and honed ever since, in their son Alexi, a 13-year-old student at a Baltimore city public school. Claudia and Dean are committed to public education and the diversity it offers.

Like their egalitarian marriage, it is something that they believe in -- together.

Dennis Curl and Kathy Sabotka grew up insulated from the causes of the day -- until Dennis was drafted.

Pub Date: 02/14/99

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