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RANGELY I It’s not every man who can say he’s been married to his wife for more than 60 years. Even fewer people can lay claim to three siblings who have been wed to their respective spouses for 50 years or longer, logging a collective 234 years of marriage as a clan.
Rangely resident Bill Mitchem can. Mitchem, who celebrated his 62nd anniversary with wife Martha on Monday, spent last weekend touring the area and reminiscing with siblings Ken, Peggy, and Jack and their spouses. Being around the family Bill has known all of his life, and the in-laws he’s known for most of it, was precious time.
“It was wonderful. It was very, very good,” Mitchem said. “Everybody’s been here before, but this is the first time they’ve all been here at the same time.”
Gathering the Mitchem siblings together all at once doesn’t happen often. Ken, the next youngest sibling to oldest brother Bill, lives with wife Donna in Longmont, while sister Peggy and husband Verl McElwain live on a farm near Limon, Colo. Youngest brother John “Jack” Mitchem and his wife Charlotte have a home near Fort Worth, Texas. While retired, they all seem to fill their time well, from photography and traveling to bowling, gardening, visiting grandchildren and more.
That’s why, when the four couples do meet, they make sure their time is well-spent. Last weekend, trips to Echo Park, Harper’s Corner, the Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry, and Split Mountain, all beloved places to Bill and Martha, also meant plenty of time to reminisce along the way.
“It’s never enough time together, but we all really enjoyed it,” Bill Mitchem said.
While Bill and Martha’s anniversary is the longest-standing of the four couples, it isn’t by much. Ken and Donna will celebrate 62 years of marriage next April, Peggy and Verl have been married for 60 years next June, and December marks 53 years for Jack and Charlotte.
“I met (Donna) on a blind date,” Ken Mitchem said. “We met on Jan. 19, I proposed on Feb. 22, we got married Apr. 11, and I shipped out (for an Air Force tech school), what, two weeks later? I was 20, she was 17.”
“That’s right. But we do not recommend that,” Donna added, laughing. “I don’t, he may.”
The jokes that flew as the Mitchem siblings and their spouses gathered in Bill and Martha’s living room Saturday morning—“We’ve had our ups and downs, like everybody else. I soon learned to do what she tells me to and we get along a lot better,” Verl McElwain joked, adding directly, “Nah, we get along good.”—spoke to the tangible camaraderie among the group.
So tangible, in fact, that telling a life’s story in just a sentence became simple.
“I came home on a three-day furlough and she came out of the theater and I picked her up and we loved each other after that,” McElwain said matter-of-factly. “Well, it’s true.”
As the couples shared bits of their individual and collective stories, a common thread became evident: the legacy they hope to have passed on to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Jack and Charlotte spoke of their education, careers and child-raising, but their description of children grown and living nearby, a granddaughter in a study abroad program in Germany, and the accomplishments of other grandchildren was just as vivid.
The Mitchem clan also demonstrated what was so difficult to put into words: that what makes a marriage fail-proof for half a century or more aren’t fanciful notions of romance and passion (though, admittedly, romance and passion help). It’s both simpler and harder than that. Humor helps, too.
“We were too poor to get a divorce,” said Peg, grinning. “No, we always had a lot of work to do,
and we just kept going. Of course, we lived on a farm and dairied for 17 years.”
Donna’s answer, also teasing: “You’re too stubborn to admit you failed.”
As laughter subsided into seriousness, the group came to a general consensus: “It just takes commitment. That, and hard work.”