No secret to their success: Humor, shared interests, family keep marriage on track for 59 years

Sandy Oppenheimer, Mary Oppenheimer, Sandy and Mary Oppenheimer

Sandy and Mary Oppenheimer reflect on their 59 years of marriage at their home in Langhorne, Pa. Photo by Robert Stern

Mary and Sandy Oppenheimer have been dancing together almost from the first time they met countless moons ago.

The Oppenheimers, whose paths merged in southern Louisiana back in 1950, marked their 59th wedding anniversary on Sept. 1, the day he turned 85.

The couple, who live in Langhorne, Pa., in a modest second-story condominium, have a “mixed marriage,” as Sandy Oppenheimer said.

The “mix” wasn’t about race or ethnicity.

It was about religion and geography.

He grew up Jewish in The Bronx, the second oldest of four brothers.

She, now 83, was the third oldest of seven sisters raised Baptist in Ruston, a small town in northern Louisiana that is home to the schools that became Grambling State University and Louisiana Tech University.

Despite the geographic and religious disparity, they clicked within a couple of weeks because they both loved dancing and they were coworkers at the newspaper in Lafayette, La., The Advertiser, which is how they met.

They didn’t fall head over heels for each other when they started dating.

“It was gradual,” Sandy Oppenheimer said.

“It wasn’t instant,” his wife concurred.

“But we were very compatible. We liked the same things, and she was very flexible (in accommodating him) and I was too,” Sandy Oppenheimer said.

Rumba and marathons

They made their love stick through mutual interests like dancing – favorites include the foxtrot and the rumba – and running, which they began doing in their 50s after he got a health scare from having high blood pressure and being overweight.

Running remains a huge part of their lives even today. Every other day, they run three miles together. They’ve even run in three marathons each – first in 1978 and most recently in 1992 for her and 1995 for him.

A shared passion for world travel, art appreciation, Broadway shows and gourmet dining at the finest restaurants in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere also has helped keep their marriage close.

The ability to make each other laugh and not dwell on the inevitable fight that crops up from time to time in any long relationship are two other reasons they’ve gotten along so well for so long, Mary Oppenheimer said.

“We both have a sense of humor, which helps,” she said.

And, yes, there have been fights.

“I said at our 50th (anniversary) that I started most of them,” Sandy Oppenheimer volunteers.

“You cannot have a marriage without fights,” Mary Oppenheimer said. “That would be unrealistic and very uninteresting.”

But they never argued over where they should live, religion or money, she said.

And, in retirement, they said they get along better than ever, although they’ve always gotten along well.

It began with a dance

They had their first dance while they were out on a double date with Sandy’s roommate and another young woman from the office, only Mary was the roommate’s date – it was their first night out – and the other woman was Sandy’s date.

“She was a better dancer than my date and I was always a great dancer and she was a great dancer,” Sandy Oppenheimer said.

“So I said to my roommate, ‘Are you interested in Mary?’

“And he said, ‘Well, yea, she’s nice and all, but there’s no romance or anything,’” Sandy Oppenheimer said. “And I asked if he would mind if I dated her, and he said, ‘Be my guest.’”

Sandy and Mary Oppenheimer picnic, old photo

An old photo of Sandy and Mary Oppenheimer relaxing on a picnic in Texas in the early 1950s.

In addition to their link through dance and other activities, the fact that neither of them has ever felt strongly about their religion has been a big part of their success too, Mary Oppenheimer said.

The love and admiration for their children, both of whom have been married for more than 30 years, and four granddaughters also figure large in the happiness of their own marriage, the Oppenheimers said.

Teletype and a doomed flight

Luck and good timing had a little to do with their marriage getting off the ground in the first place,  Sandy Oppenheimer said.

The first bit of luck is just the fact that he wound up at the Lafayette paper, first as a reporter then as bureau manager in the nearby town of New Iberia, La., after responding to a job ad in Editor & Publisher following a stint in 1949 as news editor at the Guam Daily News in Guam. She was already working there writing stories about local weddings.

He had been in Guam after completing a business administration degree at New York University after World War II.  He had some interest in the south Pacific because he had been in the Navy during the war, serving two years on the heavy cruiser USS Salt Lake City at the end of the war against Japan.

Proudly, he pointed out that the Salt Lake City fired more shells during the war than any other ship in the Pacific. The Salt Lake City was credited, at least unofficially, with taking part in more naval engagements than any other ship in the Pacific Fleet.

Sandy Oppenheimer recalled the unorthodox method he used to arrange dates with Mary when the two were separated by his reassignment to the New Iberia bureau 20 miles away.

“We had a Teletype between the offices and I’d write Mary if she’s doing anything tonight, and that’s how we dated for a while,” he said.

There would always be a middleman involved in those exchanges because the Teletype machine in Lafayette served the whole home office with someone else operating it.

“I just thought that was funny,” Sandy Oppenheimer said.

The second bit of luck came about one day when he declined a tempting invitation to fly over the area with the managing editor of the local paper in New Iberia, who flew his own plane and had been a fighter pilot in World War II.

“I said, ‘Boy, I’d love to go, but I’ve got a date with this girl in Lafayette,’” Sandy Oppenheimer said. “So I dated (an outing with Mary) and he crashed.” The pilot-editor died from his injuries in the hospital.

That’s why Sandy Oppenheimer credits Mary for saving his life.

A wedding without bells

Sandy and Mary Oppenheimer, Sandy Oppenheimer, Mary Oppenheimer, old photo

An undated photo of Sandy and Mary Oppenheimer when they were younger.

She still wears the simple gold ring he bought her for $8 or $10 – “a lot of money in those days,” as he put it – for their wedding. Years later, he bought her another wedding ring studded with diamonds that cost a lot of money, but he asked her to wear it with the original.

As for him, he has never had a wedding band because they couldn’t afford one in those days and it was more common than today for husbands to go without one.

Their marriage began the same day or the day after he proposed – neither of them can remember precisely.

It was the most modest of ceremonies held in a Methodist church in Bay St. Louis, Miss., simply because the venue was close to the Louisiana border and available and there was no waiting period to be married in Mississippi. The only people present were the bride, groom, the minister and his wife, who served as the witness.

After they got married, she didn’t mind moving to the East Coast with him, where he could have better opportunities to advance his journalism career, hopscotching from one newspaper to another.

Eventually, he became the longtime editor of the Bucks County Courier Times in suburban Philadelphia, and, for a while, editor of its sister paper, the Burlington County Times, in New Jersey. He also was publisher of the Burlington County Times for a time, although not when he was its editor.

When their two children were young, Mary Oppenheimer was a stay-at-home mom but later worked as a quality-control officer at an AMPCO Metal foundry.

Neither of them is keen to impart tips to young couples on making a marriage work.

“Nobody wants advice in the beginning of their relationship,” Mary Oppenheimer said. “People change over a period of years, too,” she said. “So the person could be perfect for you in the beginning and not so perfect for you later on.”

Sandy Oppenheimer deadpans simply, “Don’t do it,” as in, don’t get married in the first place.

“Everybody’s in love in the beginning,” he said. “But if you want to get married, just make sure that’s the one you want to live with.”

After all these years, the two of them feel they remain a good pair.

“I don’t think we’d be together,” Mary Oppenheimer said, “if we weren’t fond of and in love with each other.”

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