72 years together
by Sherrie Norris
Gene and Juanita Smith of Boone, both 91, celebrated 72 years of marriage on Jan. 8.
"We've known each other since childhood," Juanita said. "Our families were neighbors when we were about 11, but even after we moved, I never forgot him. He gave me a bracelet that had been his mother's, but I didn't see him again until 1940, at the county fair."
She still remembers what he was wearing that day - "a hat, a tan zip-up sweater and denim bell-bottom trousers."
It was like yesterday, she said.
Their conversation was brief, but it possibly rekindled an earlier spark.
"He was in the CC Camp (Civilian Conservation Corps) with my brother and ended up writing me a letter," Juanita said. "That's how it got started. I didn't get to see him much, except for when I slipped off to the movies with my brother and his girlfriend, and Gene met us there. My parents didn't want me dating."
Within a two-year span, they saw enough of each other to decide to spend their lives together. They had planned to marry in early December.
"But, then Pearl Harbor was bombed and we didn't know what to do," Juanita said.
They eventually exchanged their vows on Jan. 8, 1942, before the Rev. Grady Minton in Vilas.
Juanita was employed by the National Youth Administration project and was scheduled to work that day. Instead, she accompanied Gene to Boone for a marriage license and then back to Vilas to get married.
"Gene had an A-Model and it didn't have a heater. We nearly froze to death," she said. "We went on to Elizabethton and stayed at the Watauga Hotel till Sunday."
It was her first time to visit Tennessee.
"My parents didn't know about it. They had already told me that my life was ruined if I married," she said. "It wasn't so much about Gene, but I was their biggest helper in the family; they didn't want to lose me."
Gene and her parents ended up having a close relationship, she said, adding, "They treated him like he was their own. They never had a cross word between them."
Soon after marrying, the young couple moved to Portsmouth, Va., where Gene worked in the shipyards.
"He was drafted into the Army in the fall of '42 and drove a truck for the topographical engineers," Juanita said. "I came back home and stayed with my parents at Sugar Grove."
On Dec. 26, Gene was transferred to Ft. Lewis, Wash., until the next November.
"He came home on leave for 15 days toward the end, but I didn't know he was coming," Juanita said. "He wanted to surprise me, and he sure did. I had been walking out on the porch every day watching for him, but when he came walking through the gate, it didn't seem real. I turned and walked back into the house like I had done many times before. I couldn't think. I still don't know why I did that. It hit me hard when he got inside, though."
Juanita joined her husband when he returned to Washington; they made the trip by train in November. Soon afterward, Gene received orders for the South Pacific.
"I came back home on Jan. 4," she said. "He was gone for two years."
Gene didn't want Juanita to work a public job and their separation was long and hard for the young couple.
"But when he got back and was discharged, life started all over new," Juanita said.
They bought "a little home," but jobs were scarce at the time, Juanita said.
"We went to Cleveland, Ohio, and stayed five years. We were homesick the whole time and finally decided to come back," she said.
Gene began working as a carpenter and Juanita took care of the home.
Their first baby, born in 1946, did not survive. "It was a sad time," Juanita said.
Their son, Michael "Mick," was born two years later.
They now have six grandsons, four great-grandsons and one great-great-granddaughter.
In 1963, Gene answered the call to preach and became well known and loved throughout Avery, Watauga and Caldwell counties.
"It was a very special time of our lives," Juanita said.
"He wrestled with his call for a long time before telling me one Sunday afternoon that he had to do it," she said.
On March 1, 1963, Gene delivered his first message. "It was based on Isaiah 53," Juanita said. "I've got it marked in my Bible -- and every other time he preached, and the Scripture he used."
Gene wasn't saved when the couple first got married, Juanita said, adding, "That concerned me, especially when he was called to war, but he accepted the Lord while he was at Fort Lewis. A Baptist chaplain baptized him in the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific."
From the 1980s until retiring in 2008, Gene also owned and operated a tractor-trailer; Juanita joined him on many long-distance trips.
"We have been to the main 48 states together, mostly in the truck, but some were on vacation," she said. "I've seen some interesting places, but never anywhere like Boone."
The Smiths have "always had a special relationship." "The time he was gone in the Army just made us closer; we've never been separated again," Juanita said.
When the couple promised to love each other in sickness and health, they were sincere.
Prior to Gene's retirement, his health began to decline. He has been physically stable, but dementia has taken its toll on his mind.
"He still knows who I am, " Juanita said, "and he seems to recognize faces. He knew our grandson, Michael, at Christmas, but he doesn't seem to know most others."
Juanita considers it a blessing, "a privilege," to take care of him.
"He was always so good to me and protective of me," she said. "He is still so gentle, humble and kind. We've always had a loving, trusting relationship. I have always looked up to him and loved and respected him for the man that I know he is."
They've had their disagreements "and plenty of heartache," through the years, she said, adding, "But, we've stayed strong in our faith. Otherwise, I don't know how we would've made it."
Juanita has a box of cards that Gene has given her during the years. "I can't throw them away," she said. "He always picked out such meaningful cards for special occasions. He was always sentimental like that."
Spending most of their time at home now, with the occasional ride to the store or the doctor's office, Juanita said, "We are as content as we can be. I am at peace when I'm right here with him. Everything is all right."
She does miss going to church, but she stays busy with her handwork - crocheting, knitting and quilting. Much of her work is sold at the craft center at Moses Cone Manor in Blowing Rock or given to family. She also loves to read.
"I try to keep something handy to pick up to read, especially my Bible," she said. They watch the news and game shows on television, "and something relaxing," she said, "like 'The Waltons' and 'Little House on the Prairie.'"
"We've had our ups and downs," Juanita said, "but the good far outweighs the bad."
When asked who he loved the most, Gene smiled, looked to his right, and pointed to where Juanita sat.
"I love her," he said, with a smile.