SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — By any measure, whether just people applauding you or convincing U.S. Census data, Fern and Al Early are in a special category that their love and commitment to each other has earned them.
They recently marked 60 years married, a fête that very few Americans can claim. The U.S. Census says that only fewer than seven percent make 50 years. However, the Earlys don’t see anything unusual about this distinction.
“We never thought about being married 60 years,” said 79-year-old Fern. Al, 82, chimed in, “We just do it.” For this couple, it’s never been about the work of marriage, it’s been only about using their togetherness to help others.
Interviews with them and their daughter reveal a story about the longevity of a marriage that comes from acts of kindness, words of encouragement and belief in the goodness of others rather than prescriptions and advice for those seeking long-lasting bliss.
Sitting around the dining room table at their Kenyon Avenue home recently, they talked about their life together over six decades that started when they were teenagers. Pictures line the wall, a piano, shelves and many other places spanning a life time of memories, friends and family.
The South Kingstown High School graduates met when she was a freshman and he a senior. Al graduated and went on to work, but returned for post-graduate work at the high school.
It was then the fire started to burn between the two. Fern recalled his smile and cute looks.
“We saw each other when I was dating somebody else and I learned from some of his friends that he wanted to ask me out. I remember seeing him and him winking at me and he was just so cute,” she said.
She looked over at Al who beamed his trademark wide-brimmed grin.
After a year or so of dating, Al said, he proposed to her. On a sunny afternoon Sept. 5, 1959, they were married in the former Narragansett Baptist Church on Caswell Street. With just $350 in their pockets, they rented a two-bedroom apartment above the old Ram Restaurant in Narragansett.
He was a gas station attendant and she worked the office of Sears and Roebuck catalog on Robinson Street.
Four years later they bought their first house — a modest place on Columbia Street in the town both called home since childhood. Fern was born in South County Hospital and as were their three children — Jeff, Matt and Melanie — who arrived during the next 13 years.
Al said that providing for the growing family, though, meant seeking new job opportunities. With these came moving from their beloved South County, the couple said, and planting temporary roots in Connecticut, Mississippi, Maryland and Kansas before returning home in 1994 to Wakefield.
They agreed that frequent moves, coming from Al’s climb up a career ladder in the Bechtel Corp.’s nuclear power division, at times posed potential challenges to their family and marriage.
“But, I think, if anything, it made us all closer,” Fern said, “ because it was just us and our kids. We just had good adventures and I tried to make it easier on the kids.”
This attitude, their daughter Melanie Bumpus explained, always recharged the family’s togetherness that plugged into the electricity from their marriage.
“They taught us to be thoughtful of others, not to be judgmental, just be forgiving, the basic moral values. They live by those. They get involved in their community, they volunteer their time. Since we were kids, they always taught us that sort of thing,” she said.
“When we lived in Mississippi we would give our toys and things to people who lived in shacks, I mean just simple, falling-apart shacks. There also was this other time when he would go to work, see this homeless man each day, and every day would bring him a cup of hot coffee on his way to work,” Bumpus said.
“They would take us to adopt a family at Christmas, my mom would go visit veterans at the veterans hospital, volunteering on her own. They have been that way their whole lives.”
Bumpus said that examples also came from her parents’ assistance to friends of hers and her brothers.
“Our house was that house where kids who couldn’t get along with their own parents or would get kicked out as teenagers, they were always at my house. My parents would let them stay with us, my mom would talk to them,” she said.
“Right now I’m in the thick of teenage years with my children. That can be tough. I think they set a great example. Be patient, try to be understanding of what the kids are going through,” she said.
Her mother made friends everywhere they moved, Bumpus said, keeping in touch through letter writing. When a friend died, her mother would send the letters, tied in a ribbon, she kept to one of the person’s children “so they had something very personal to remember their parent by,” said Bumpus.
Generosity like that also extended to each other, Bumpus recalled about her parents. She paused, and then added, “They are a special couple who have always been good to each other and they always have been that way.”
Al said that being good to each other just comes naturally. “When we moved one of the things I made sure of we’d live someplace where I knew they were going to be happy,” he noted.
Fern jumped in, “He really sacrificed for us in that way. Because he was working in a nuclear power plant, it was always quite a ways out someplace. He would find a place where we would be happy …and he would have a long drive all the time.”
Bumpus said, “They were always that way with one another. If one of them needs something, the other person was there, was supportive.”
Her mother, though, said that “of course, through the years, we’ve had arguments about certain things, especially when we were younger, but I don’t remember any big thing or where we even thought about leaving each other.”
Al added, “When you had problems you just worked through them.”
This milestone of 60 years married and growing older also comes with realizations about themselves and the enormous amount of their lives spent together, the couple said.
“I just can’t imagine,” Al said, his voice suddenly trailing off, before picking up again, “that I don’t want to be around without her. What am I going to if she’s not here, something like that, you know.”
He wiped a tear edging out of his eye and slowing creeping down the corner of his face. Fern replied softly, reaching for his hand, “You’ll do fine.”