OGDEN — On their 80th wedding anniversary two years ago, Willis and Marie Barnes took a trip to the Farmington courthouse where they were married to pose for a snapshot.
A city official who looked up their records did some quick math and good-naturedly informed the couple that they had apparently been married illegally in 1929 because Marie was only 15 at the time.
"Yes," admitted Marie with a sly smile, "it is true that I lied about my age that day." She turned to Willis and gave him a hug. "But he sure was worth breaking the law for."
Today, as Utah's longest-married couple prepares to celebrate their 82nd Valentine's Day together, "we love each other just as much as the day we said, 'I do,' " says Marie, now 96.
Willis, who at age 100 is content to let his wife do all of the talking, still starts every morning by rubbing Marie's back and asking, 'Whatever did I do to deserve you?' "
"He's still romantic," says Marie, "but most of all, he's just a good man. Neither one of us has ever been bossy. I suppose that's what makes us click."
Happy to share a few secrets of keeping love alive after more than eight decades, Marie joined me for a Free Lunch chat with her daughter, Shirley Slaugh, at the Ogden retirement center where she and Willis have lived for two years.
Originally from Evanston, Wyo., where they'd met at a town dance, the couple went swimming one weekend in Utah with friends and decided on a whim to get married after their hair dried.
"We were driving around with the windows down and ended up at the Farmington courthouse," recalls Marie. "My friend turned to me and said, 'We're going to get married — why don't you get married, too?' I said, 'Sounds good to me.' So we did."
She and Willis returned to Evanston in time for dinner, but didn't tell their parents about their nuptials. "We each lived at home and kept it secret for two years," she says. "When I was done with school and showed my mother my marriage license, we finally started our lives together."
Willis, a champion wrestler who's never been pinned unless you count the day he married Marie, worked for Union Pacific Railroad as a machinist while his new bride took care of life on the home front.
"They've always been affectionate. Daddy never left the house in the morning without giving her a kiss," recalls Shirley, 73, the second of three children. "Even though he's a typical macho man, he's always had a soft spot for Mom, and he doesn't mind showing it."
Shirley moved her parents to Ogden when it became difficult for them to keep up with household tasks and climb the basement stairs. "They've done remarkably well. Daddy was driving into his mid-90s," she says. "But I could see that their lives were winding down and they needed somebody to step in and help."
Unhappy when he could no longer slide behind the wheel, Willis tried to hitchhike to Evanston at age 99.
"I was relieved when he came back," says Marie, speaking softly as her husband takes a short nap after lunch. "I knew he couldn't stay away long. … He's a good man, always putting me forward. That's what happens when you've found true love."
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