PARKSTON, S.D. — Though it wasn’t a traditional “milestone year,” a Parkston couple’s anniversary last month came with extra celebration.
John and Joyce Mechtenberg received word on their 72nd wedding anniversary that they were chosen by the Worldwide Marriage Encounter for the ninth annual Longest Married Couple Project. The project started in 2010 as a way to honor those who have achieved long-lasting marriages, and provide hope for younger generations. Nominations for the project are taken between Valentine’s Day and May 14 each year.
“A life-long commitment can seem like an impossible dream to many couples who are just starting off their lives together today — and yet that commitment is so crucial in building a solid foundation in our families and throughout the world,” organizers wrote to the Mechtenbergs. “These couples … look to you, a couple who has honored their commitment, who has nurtured their marriage, and who has loved unconditionally through the peaks and valleys of a lifetime together.”
Thirty-five state winners achieved 70 or more years of marriage.
The letter, which served as notification of the honor, called the Mechtenbergs and other recipients “a beacon of hope.”
“You have forged a path that others will want to follow,” it said. “You help us all believe that true love is not only possible, but achievable.”
Joyce recognized that, in a time when many marriages end in divorce, their bond is special.
“We were in love then, and we stayed married. Not too many can say that they stayed married, but we did,” Joyce said.
In good company
No state agency tracks marriage longevity in South Dakota, so it is unclear whether they truly are the longest-married couple in the state, but it’s an award the Mechtenberg family is happy to celebrate.
“It is quite an honor,” said the couple’s oldest daughter, Pat Sudbeck, of Dimock.
And Sudbeck says they’re in good company. When they received their award, they also received a list of recipients in all 50 states.
“They’re right up there with celebrities,” Sudbeck said, grinning from ear to ear.
America’s 39th president, Jimmy Carter, and his wife, Rosalynn, were married July 7, 1946. They are the second-longest-married couple in the United States, having celebrated 73 years earlier this month. They are surpassed only by the 41st president, George H.W. Bush, and his wife, Barbara, who attained 73 years, 111 days prior to her passing in April 2018. President Bush died in November. The Bushes were named the longest-married couple in Texas by the Worldwide Marriage Encounter in 2015.
The longest-married couple in the country is D.W. and Willie Williams of Charlotte, N.C., whose 82nd anniversary will be Aug. 17.
The Mechtenbergs said they had no idea how long “forever” might take when they took their vows at age 20.
“We didn’t know, (and we) didn’t care,” said John, now 92.
“We just go with the flow,” Joyce, 91, agreed. “We’ve been blessed — there ain’t no doubt about it.”
‘They did it together’
Sudbeck said she’s reflected a lot since her parents’ anniversary about what has set their marriage apart from others.
“They’ve always done everything together,” she said. “One didn’t go this way while the other went the other. If they were in choir, they were in choir together. If they volunteered for the Auxiliary, they did it together. … They never did anything separately.”
The Mechtenbergs met in 1937 when John came to parochial school in fourth grade from country school.
“I don’t know that we were in love then,” Joyce said with a giggle, but “he was cute.”
The couple laughed as they recalled a time when John and his friend, Jim Marking, who later would serve as the couple’s best man, made sure Joyce and another classmate couldn’t get away.
“They put tar on the swings one time, so they couldn’t get away,” Reinhardt laughed.
The two soon became friends and, later, high school sweethearts after Joyce convinced John that they should be more than friends. She isn’t sure how long she pursued him before he gave in to a first date, and neither can remember their first date.
“Oh, I don’t know, but I got him anyway,” Joyce said with a giggle. “He was always cute. He was a handsome hunk. He was cute then, and cute now.”
But, once they started dating, “we just sailed along, one after the other,” she said.
In 1945, John left for two years to serve in World War II with the U.S. Coast Guard.
“They’ve stuck together through thick and thin,” Sudbeck nodded.
And, upon his return, they picked up right where they’d left off. Neither John nor Joyce can recall a marriage proposal taking place, but they’d discussed marriage before the war and quickly were wed after he returned from service.
The couple was married at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Parkston — where they’d attended parochial school together — on June 30, 1946. To this day, they are members of the parish, though the church where they were wed was destroyed by fire, and a new building erected in the 1970s.
Raising babies and chickens
The first of the couple’s eight children, Rick, was born 11 months after their wedding.
“Then, one after the other, they came,” Joyce said.
Pat Sudbeck, twins Judy Carroll and Janet Groen, Sandy Lang, Jody Reinhardt, Tom Mechtenberg and Alan Mechtenberg all were born before Rick turned 15.
“It was fun,” Mechtenberg said.
Sudbeck and Reinhardt recalled days filled with games and swimming, but Joyce pointed out that their children worked hard on the family farm, as well as the 25,000-head chicken farm. Each was paid a weekly wage from the chicken farm that helped pay their way to college. All eight of the children have earned post-secondary educations, starting careers in nursing, optometry, engineering and office administration.
Just after his second child graduated from high school in 1970, John was presented with the opportunity to further his own education. A federal agent paid him a visit to let him know he had been missed for a GI bill. He enrolled in correspondence meat and poultry inspection classes, thinking it would help him run their own farm better. But, once he finished, the government offered him a position as a meat inspector.
“It was more money than Dad had ever seen in his lifetime,” Sudbeck said, so he decided to try it out “for a few months.”
At first, he worked in Mitchell. Then, he was transferred to Rapid City. Initially, he worked there and Joyce and the children stayed in Parkston, running the poultry farm.
“Mom made it work, we all pitched in” until the family joined their patriarch in Rapid City, Sudbeck said.
Eventually, John was transferred to Bridgewater before retiring back in Parkston in 1994.
Faith, hope and love
The Mechtenbergs contend that their faith life is the foundation of their long-lasting marriage, enduring health and overcoming the losses of their eldest child, a son-in-law and a grandson.
“We prayed a lot,” and some of the couple’s favorite memories were spent celebrating the sacramental milestones of their children, friends, neighbors and other family members.
Though farming and raising a house full of children comes with stresses, the couple said they’ve never argued.
“You have to take the bad with the good,” Joyce said. “There’s no reason to argue.”
Sudbeck and Reinhardt said they could not recall any time when their parents disagreed.
“I don’t ever remember them having a situation that they couldn’t remedy with a discussion,” Sudbeck said.
Mechtenberg said she always trusted that John would steer their family safely through whatever challenges presented themselves.
“That wasn’t too hard,” she said. “He is a good man. … He had everything under control, and he knew what we were doing, and he was the man. … He worked it out.”
The path to happiness
A pewter plaque gift from their maid of honor, Doris Heisinger, sets next to an anniversary photo with Paul Swain, bishop of the Catholic Church for East River South Dakota, in the family’s living room, reminding all who visit to love one another at all times.
“People who love each other fully and truly are the happiest people in the world,” the plaque quotes Mother Teresa.
“They’ve always clung to that,” Sudbeck said, showing unconditional love to their family and to others. “No matter which boyfriend we brought home or which animal we brought home, they’d love them.”
Sudbeck, who resembles her mother, often is stopped by others who share how her mother’s love has impacted their lives.
“They tell me, ‘Your mother always greeted me, and she always knew what to say when I was struggling. She always took time for me,’” Sudbeck said. “Those are traits that have made this last, too.”
Joyce said her love for her husband has not changed in more than seven decades, and her family says that is evident. Recently, the couple attended John’s brother’s birthday party with Sudbeck.
“Mom said, ‘I want to sit over here, so I can see my sweetie,’” she said. “She’d seen him all morning long, but she still needed to sit where she could see him. That’s beautiful.”
Witnessing to the power of love naturally is a common attribute among members of the Longest Married Couple Project, according to the letter sent to the Mechtenbergs.
“We can only imagine how many hearts have been guided and blessed by your relationship through the years,” the letter said. “You probably have no idea of the number of lives you have touched … far beyond the scope of your family and friends.”
Enjoying life at home
With the exception of an occasional car ride or family gathering, the Mechtenbergs now spend their days in their home, enjoying the company of family and watching John’s beloved Chicago Cubs.
Fortunate to be in relatively good health in their 90s, the couple continue to live independently, though Sudbeck and a part-time nurse tend to their cooking, cleaning and personal care needs.
“We take care of each other,” Joyce said, adding that they’re “biding their time” on Earth together.
Other family members visit frequently, but the nature of most family gatherings has shifted so the couple can savor their company. With the exception of their recent anniversary party, when most members of the family converged to celebrate, family members come and go, each taking quality time with Grandma and Grandpa, rather than overwhelming them with big celebrations.
“The door is always open,” Joyce said.