CHATHAM — John and Barbara Emison of Chatham met 78 years ago when they were both students at DePauw University.
The world was torn apart by World War II when the 17-year-old freshman and the 20-year-old junior went on a blind date.
“John’s good friend and my roommate wanted us to meet,” Barbara Emison, 95, recalled during a telephone interview last week. His friend and her roommate came up with a ruse because they felt the prospect of a blind date would scare off Barbara and John.
It so happened that the four of them went to a Sadie Hawkins Day dance. In 1937 cartoonist Al Capp, author of the Li’l Abner strip, had introduced a new concept named after one of his Dogpatch characters: On Sadie Hawkins Day, unattached women could pursue men. At this college dance in January 1943, the idea was that the girls could invite the boys to dance.
But it didn’t work out that way.
Barbara and John were introduced, and although she had previously dated older boys, “he looked very old to me at the time,” Barbara says. The dance hall was decorated with hay bales. “Hillbilly costumes” were the order of the day, with the girls wearing full skirts with frilly blouses and the boys wearing jeans and flannel shirts. Despite the Sadie Hawkins theme, Barbara didn’t ask any of the boys to dance because “you dance with the boy you came with — that was the rule,” she says.
The evening was a success, because John called her the next day and asked her for a date. There wasn’t much to do in the little town of Greencastle, Ind. back in the mid ’40s, so in March John gave her a kite for her 18th birthday and they flew it in a nearby pasture.
“That was fun,” Barbara says. “It was an innocent time.”
John had enlisted in the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and in the summer of 1943 he was called to active duty. He served with the amphibian forces in the Pacific.
“He wrote me every day during the war,” Barbara says. Because the letters had to go through a censor, sometimes she would receive a batch of them. One day she received 21.
“He couldn’t say anything except the same thing over and over again,” she says. “It kept us in touch.” John’s mother requested that Barbara give her a copy of every one of John’s letters, but she refused. Later on, she burned the letters. “They were nobody’s business but mine.”
Meanwhile, Barbara followed the custom of many young women at the time — she knitted John a pair of argyle socks. The project took her two years.
She was a serious student raised in a family that valued academics. Her father had majored in classics and her mother was “a brilliant woman.” Barbara, who had been ranked first in her high school class, majored in English composition at DePauw.
In 1946 Barbara graduated from DePauw Magna Cum Laude and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. By now, John had been decommissioned and the pair planned their wedding. On Feb. 1, 1947 they married in Barbara’s home church in Indianapolis. Their wedding was in February because John was then a student at Harvard Business School, and he had a one-week break between semesters. Three hundred relatives and friends attended the ceremony, after which the couple went off to honeymoon at the Lake Placid Club. There, Barbara took up cross-country skiing. John remembers that the food was good and the people nice.
After he graduated from Harvard, John took a job with Revere Copper and Brass, rising to vice president and treasurer in the company. The family lived in Rome, N.Y. where they raised their three daughters Lucy, Nancy and Patricia.
John, who grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., had vacationed on the Cape with his parents. So when it came time for the couple to retire in 1976, they bought a house in Chatham. When they arrived, they visited various churches before settling into the First Congregational Church of Chatham (FCC), where they remain active members to this day.
To celebrate their 74th anniversary, two of their three daughters cooked a fancy dinner for the couple at home. They enjoyed congratulatory phone calls from their third daughter and from their two granddaughters who are living in New York and Ireland.
“Those of us fortunate enough to know John and Barbara are inspired by their incredible lives and by their life together,” says the Rev. Joseph Marchio, the FCC’s pastor. “Their love, nearly three quarters of a century strong, is a bright light of hope in our often-broken world.”
John once joked to Marchio that he married Barbara because she made a good applesauce. “My family thinks it’s good, so I don’t argue with them,” Barbara says.
But what is the real secret to a long and happy marriage?
“Well, there have to be a lot of secrets — you have to be determined to make it work,” Barbara says.
“You make it sound like it’s hard work,” John says.
“What’s your secret, John?” she asks him.