As long as you both shall live

The Baltimore Sun

Attention newlyweds: looking for inspiration as you begin your life's journey together?

Serious about your vows, especially the part about "for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, for as long as you both shall live?"

Determined not to add to the ugly statistic of more than 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce?

Well, have I got a couple of role models for you.

Meet my friends Gilbert and Loretta Hoffman of Timonium, who just celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.

Think about that, newlyweds: 50 years of marriage. Today we have marriages that last about 50 hours.

Britney Spears, she got liquored up and hitched in a Las Vegas wedding chapel to a guy she knew since childhood, and the marriage lasted two days! Her hangover lasted longer.

But Gil Hoffman, fresh out of the Army and working for his family's awning business, and Loretta Barczak, a stenographer for a casualty company, were married at St. Casimir Church in Canton in 1957, back when Eisenhower was president, gas cost 24 cents a gallon, the Russians launched Sputnik I to usher in the Space Age and Elvis Presley bought a little spread in Memphis, Tenn., called Graceland.

And over the next 50 years, through all the ups and downs, they raised four kids and doted on 12 grandchildren, cultivated a small army of friends, watched Gil's law career flourish and helped so many people with their selfless nature and charity work that it's impossible to measure.

So last week, to celebrate such a rich life, they renewed their wedding vows at a Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Towson and threw a party for more than 90 friends and family members at Liberatore's restaurant in Timonium.

There was food and wine and laughter. Gil recalled how at their wedding reception back in '57, Loretta fell down while dancing with her brother, Edward, a physician, and hit her head on the dance floor.

Dr. Barczak examined her and determined she had suffered a concussion.

"Make sure you wake her up every hour tonight," the doctor told Gil.

"I don't think that'll be a problem," Gil replied with a sly grin.

If it's true opposites attract, Loretta, now 69, and Gil, 73 and retired, were a classic case.

"He's a jokester, a sports fan," Loretta says. "He makes light of things that I consider important."

She admits to a more serious side, loves classical music and art museums.

But what binds them, both say, is their deep Catholic faith and conservative values.

Oh, and they both love eating steamed crabs - Gil's nickname is Captain Crab - and playing Scrabble.

Scrabble, says Loretta, "is a tension reliever and also a good form of ... psychological therapy when you're dealing with something negative."

Of course, it's not as if Gil and Loretta didn't have a disagreement or two over the past 50 years. They might have been married in the '50s, but this isn't Ward and June Cleaver here.

"We're two imperfect people, like all human beings are," Loretta says.

So they had their share of spats. (A memorable one, which neither cares to discuss in great detail, involved pots being thrown and sounded like a beauty. It wasn't Ali-Frazier, but it wasn't an anger-management highlight, either.)

But always there was contrition, the attempt to work things out, to move on.

"I think the best thing to do in some circumstances is have a cooling-off period ... and come back to discuss it later," Loretta says. "And people need to recognize what they said or did was hurtful, and they need to take responsibility through sincere apology and asking for forgiveness."

For the record, she was looking at Gil as she said this. He, on the other hand, had developed a sudden fascination for a spot on the ceiling.

At the bash at Liberatore's, Loretta said quite a few people have come up to her and Gil over the years and asked for their "secret" for such a long and happy marriage. After all, the statistics say only 5 percent of all married couples reach their 50th anniversary.

The Hoffmans point to a marriage "Mission Statement" they crafted years ago.

"Be each other's best friend," it says in part. "Create an environment of love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, patience, care and good example to each other, our family and friends."

Generosity of spirit - that's a big part of their "secret." Because each of these two has a heart as big as the Chesapeake Bay.

They've served the poor at Our Daily Bread, done prison ministry work, volunteered for their churches, done work for the pro-life movement.

They took in a kid named Peter Nizner from Slovakia when he arrived in this country with a scholarship to Goucher College but no place to stay.

They didn't take him in for a couple of weeks, either. Or a couple of months. They took him in for four years, made him part of their family.

They also made poor Steve Becker's last years on this Earth a little more bearable.

Regular readers of this space may remember Becker, the guy from Parkville who suffered from huge complications due to rickets, a childhood disorder that caused a softening and weakening of his bones.

He was bedridden for seven years, paralyzed from the neck down yet wracked with constant pain, until his death in May of last year.

But before Becker died, Gil spearheaded a fundraising drive to get Steve a heated hospital bed to ease his joint pain. Over $77,000 was raised, much of that from Sun readers who read about Becker here and responded with their checkbooks.

No wonder so many people turned out at Immaculate Conception, and then at Liberatore's, to help celebrate this great marriage.

Fifty years.

Pay attention, newlyweds.

When the Hoffmans recited their wedding vows, they weren't fooling around.

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