Long-lasting love: Chattanooga couples talk about navigating marriages that have lasted decades

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Johnny and Carol Beard pose for a photo in their home.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Johnny and Carol Beard pose for a photo in their home.

Some find the person they are going to marry in grammar school. Others meet the person they're going to marry when they're old enough to understand tax forms. Not all are fortunate enough to get it right the first time and may find their special someone later on. Chattanooga couples that have been married from 30 to 50 years and longer say that there are a few key ways to keep a marriage alive (and well) for a long time.

The Beards

In high school, Johnny Beard saw his future wife, Carol, getting an Icee at a convenience store on Signal Mountain and says he was "impressed with the way she looked." He had mistaken her for someone else at Girls Preparatory School because she was in her uniform, but eventually, they were properly introduced.

Their families knew each other from Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church, but Johnny and Carol were two years apart in school, so they weren't as familiar. When Johnny was a junior and Carol was a freshman, he asked to pick her up and take her to a school dance.

While Carol's parents were reluctant, her aunt, who knew Johnny from church, personally vouched for him, and they were able to go.

A few dates in, Carol remembers calling her mother, who was away on a trip, and saying, "Mom, I'm in love."

They dated until they were both in college at the University of Tennessee and then broke up for a few years — the best thing they ever did, according to Carol.

After spending time apart, the couple rekindled their relationship and got engaged before Johnny's third year of law school, getting married shortly after. The Beards had children and have been happily married for 46 years, living in their house on Lookout Mountain for 38 of them.

The couple says that having different interests keeps their relationship strong. Carol loves gardening and shopping, and Johnny loves fly-fishing and hunting. He hates digging holes in the garden for Carol, and she cries when he kills a deer, she says.

Striking a balance between having their own lives and bonding over shared experiences like family trips works well for them.

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The Jensens

Paul and Susan Jensen met when they were on a double-date with other people during their time at Auburn University in 1965. About a year and half later, Susan and Paul started dating.

"Once we went on a date, we pretty much didn't date anybody else," Susan says.

Paul says getting to know Susan as a friend before they dated helped them succeed in marriage, and they had a lot of things in common to bond over, like growing up in small towns and being raised in a Methodist Church.

After 56 years of marriage, the couple has experienced many stages of life together. Paul says they celebrated Susan's college graduation and his birthday and got married all within the week after she finished her undergraduate degree. Then, she began her career as a first-grade teacher while he was in graduate school for the next two years, before Paul joined the Navy.

  photo  Staff photo by Sarah Dolgin / Susan and Paul Jensen in their home on Signal Mountain

 Paul and Susan moved around to different states while he was in the Navy, and they had two children, eventually settling in Chattanooga in 1982 due to Paul's job at Dupont. Paul is from Southern Georgia and Susan is from Alabama, so they were happy to return closer to their families after years of moving. The couple lived from 1997 to 2007 in Atlanta when Dupont moved its office, but after Paul's retirement, the Jensens moved back to Signal Mountain to be with their kids and grandkids.

"Every move we made has been a good thing for our marriage," Susan says.

She says that while difficult, moving allowed the couple to reset and get better at the process together. Susan also says it helped them learn how to make new friends, and that meeting different people opened their minds.

Paul says it's important to listen — which he says is still a work in progress.

According to Susan, most problems can be worked out with patience, honesty and seeing the other person's point of view. However, she says with a laugh that the "don't go to bed mad at each other" philosophy is "ridiculous."

The Leonards

Anne and Bill Leonard met in their 30s when they were living in the same complex on Mountain Creek Road near Signal Mountain. Anne says she was "picky," so she'd never been married, and Bill had previously been in the Navy and had a marriage while young that didn't work out. It was Anne's birthday and Labor Day, so there was a party at the complex's clubhouse. The two met, and Bill asked her on a date. After they watched "The Omen" together and went out for Chinese food, the rest is history.

Bill says they connected over going to big Southern schools — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Tennessee — and over their involvement in Greek life. They also could relate to each other because they both grew up as only children.

The Leonards have been married for nearly 45 years, and Anne is a "bonus" mother and grandmother to Bill's two children and four grandchildren from his previous marriage. They've lived in various houses during their time in Chattanooga but have been a part of the Signal Mountain community for the longest.

  photo  Staff photo by Sarah Dolgin / Anne and Bill Leonard seated in the living room of their Signal Mountain home

 Having common backgrounds but honoring their differences contributes to their healthy marriage, Bill says.

"I think our differences are respected by each other. Anne was an art major in school — excellent art — and I was more sports-minded and athletic," Bill says.

When Anne would take part in community art opportunities like interior design showcases, Bill says it enhanced the quality of their life by introducing him to a new group of artistic people he wouldn't have met otherwise.

Respecting a spouse's time and space is something that Bill lives by, which Anne says comes along with trust. When there's trust, she says that you don't have to worry about the other's whereabouts and can each enjoy separate activities, like garden club or meeting with friends for coffee.

"The similarities and the differences over the years have complemented each other to allow us to weave our mosaic together in life," Bill says, as Anne pokes fun at the statement.

The Beenes

At Signal Mountain Elementary during third-grade recess, Gary Beene and his future wife, Sharon, met. Their families also went to the same church, and Sharon's mother was Gary's Sunday school teacher. The Beene family would sit behind Sharon's family in church, and Gary's father told her that he knew she was the one for Gary because she had the best ponytail, she recalls. The two say they were friends from that time on and started dating in their junior year of high school.

After a short break during their first year of college, Gary transferred from Southern Methodist University in Texas to Mississippi College, where Sharon was studying, so that they could reunite.

Junior year of college, they were married.

After graduation, the Beenes moved back to Signal Mountain and have been there for their 55 years of marriage and four children.

  photo  Staff photo by Sarah Dolgin / Gary and Sharon Beene stand in the library of their Signal Mountain home.

 Sharon says there's no big secret to staying married so long, and she and Gary always have a lot of fun when they're together. Growing up as friends together also helped develop their strong marriage, they say.

"He does make me laugh; that helps," Sharon says.

Before they had children, the Beenes were both working as teachers and traveled through Europe for a summer and look back fondly on the time they spent together. They've since traveled abroad to visit family and want to continue traveling together.

Once they had their four kids on Signal Mountain, Sharon says she enjoyed having a "fun, crazy house" when they were all little. Now, their 11 grandkids come to visit the same house they've been in since 1981.

The Littlefields

Ron Littlefield met his wife, Lanis, in grammar school in LaFayette, Georgia. Ron was in third grade, and Lanis was in second grade. Ron says that "no self-respecting third-grade guy would have anything to do with a second grader," so he waited to make a move until a bit later.

In high school, the two started dating and were on and off throughout high school and college when they both ended up at Auburn University. Chuckling, they both recall a time when they drove home from college together to visit family for the weekend, and he threatened to not take her back to college after a fight. "We don't want to give the impression that we were always just the starry-eyed lovers," Ron says.

  photo  Staff photo by Sarah Dolgin / Ron and Lanis Littlefield outside their home

 Their last year at Auburn in 1967, Ron and Lanis got married, and they had the first of their two sons in December of 1968. The Littlefields settled in Chattanooga when Ron got a job downtown and eventually got into city planning — which led to a long stint as Chattanooga mayor from 2005 to 2013. Ron says Lanis supported him throughout his time as mayor, even when things were very difficult. Lanis worked in real estate and is now known for her elaborate garden at the Brainerd home the couple has lived in for the last five decades.

Lanis and Ron have been married for 56 years, and she says they are both pretty easy-going, which has helped them get along.

"We choose our battles, which are very few," Lanis says.

Over the years, Ron and Lanis have exchanged Valentines and handwritten notes showing their mutual love and appreciation for each other, and they say it has never occurred to them to be apart.

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The Elvins

Sue Carol Elvin was working in financial planning in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when the man she'd been dating told her about a group he was doing marketing for. The group consisted of business-oriented singles over 40, and her beau at the time asked her to join the group. Little did he know, he was setting Sue Carol up to meet her future husband.

Peter Elvin was divorced and didn't plan on getting married again.

"I had no intention of marrying," he says. "I just wanted to follow the sunset around the world."

Peter says he was interested in Sue Carol as soon as he saw her at the event, but he didn't know she was nearsighted and couldn't see him trying to make eye contact with her. Luckily, they sat at the same table later on and exchanged numbers for a first date.

Soon Peter and Sue Carol were married, and due to financial strain, Peter decided to return to his former job as a mariner and work on voyages for three months at a time. They moved from Fort Lauderdale to Panama City, where Sue Carol was originally from, so she could take care of a health issue.

  photo  Staff photo by Sarah Dolgin / Sue Carol and Peter Elvin are shown in the living room of their Highland Park home.

 The Elvins have been married for 35 years, and Sue Carol has joined her husband at sea for three of his past voyages. Her first trip, she joined the crew and was on mopping duty, just to be able to go along with Peter. While mopping and washing dishes in the ship's galley weren't her cup of tea, she says she swam in every ocean as she traveled globally and was able to write stories for her grandchildren.

"Peter is the one who has the ideas about 'let's go here; let's do this; let's do that,' and I'm always the one who says, 'Yes, I'll do it!'"

Five years ago, the Elvins landed in Highland Park, Chattanooga, and say they love the city. When they're not traveling, the couple plays bridge together, digitally and in-person with a group, and continues to plan their next adventures.

They hope to go to California for their big trip of 2024.

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