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Bethlen Home couple given 'longest married' recognition

| Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, 12:59 p.m.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Elsie Lehman, 94, receives a kiss from her daughter Judy Sabo McClurkin, of Fairfield Township, at the Bethlen Home in Ligonier.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Elsie Lehman, 94, and her husband of 76 years Alton, 99, hold handsat the Bethlen Home in Ligonier. Alton and Elsie Lehman were nominated as the state's longest married couple through the Worldwide Marriage Encounter’s Longest Married Couple Project. The couple were married on Sept. 8, 1937.

Bethlen Home residents Alton and Elsie Lehman were named the Pennsylvania winners of a “longest-married couple” competition conducted by Worldwide Marriage Encounters, a faith-based organization.

Surrounded by their children, grand-, great- and great-great-grandchildren, amidst balloons, roses and Valentine's Day chocolates, were photos and collages depicting their love story through the birthday parties, holidays and reunions of their ever-expanding family.

The former Johnstown-area residents were all smiles for photos at a surprise party at the Ligonier Township facility to honor them. Their entwined hands spoke louder than words.

“We hold each other's hands so we don't get in trouble,” Alton, 99, said of himself and his 94-year-old wife.

The Lehmans celebrated 76 years as husband and wife on Sept. 8, 2013.

Rick and Evie West, regional representatives for Marriage Encounters, presented the couple with a certificate.

“You indeed are a rock for your family and your entire community,” said Rick West.

The organization, based in San Bernardino, Calif., marks its fourth year of seeking nominations for the award recognizing couples across the nation.

The winning couple married the longest in the United States, 82 years, lives in Burbank, Calif. They were recognized on Valentine's Day.

The project is based only on submissions. Individual states may have couples who have been married longer but were not nominated.

“This project appeals to people in this time of disposable marriages. It is nice to see someone married 76 years,” said Mark Kulyk of Fairview. He and his wife, Joyce, are the publicity couple for the Catholic faith-based Worldwide Marriage Encounter of Western Pennsylvania.

“Our goal is to promote the value of marriage. This is a great way to promote our message,” Kulyk said.

Michelle Parrish of Bolivar nominated her grandparents. Parrish and her husband, Jim, with 11 children are active in the local marriage encounter group. She saw the advertisement and got the ball rolling to suggest they might qualify to be the oldest couple.

“I saw the ad that was looking for the longest married couple,” said Parrish. “I figured they were a pretty sure bet.”

Parrish said she submitted the information and did not hear back about it until a month ago when she received a email indicating her grandparents were the Pennsylvania recipients and that it would be officially announced for Valentine's Day. Parrish got the word out to her family members and they planned the celebration at Bethlen Home.

Parrish said her grandparents have been a positive role model for the entire family.

“They go to mass every day and are committed to their faith,” said Parrish. “They have instilled in all of us strong moral values.”

Parrish praised Bethlen Home for the support and care they provide to her grandparents. She said her daughter, Maria, works there as a dietician and checks in on them every day to see how they are doing.

The couple's children, Karen Lehman, Kathy Trabert, Judy McClurkin, Jess Lehman and Mark Lehman, attended the party. The couple's sixth child, David Lehman, is deceased.

“This experience just confirmed for all of us that faithfulness is not easy to do day by day. To be able to make it through all those years, good or bad, reiterates we all need to be faithful to our commitments,” said Karen Lehman. “My dad could not get done thanking us to be able to be honored in such a way. There is not a whole lot to look forward to at their time in life. It is still something to be recognized. The golden ages are not necessarily golden ages. They have lived with aging gracefully.”

Karen Lehman also praised everyone at Bethlen Home for taking such wonderful care of her parents.

“They have been settled in for two years now. We could not be happier with the care they are receiving,” she said. “They are happy to be together. They don't live very well without each other. They can enjoy this peaceful time at this juncture. I don't think they could do it without each other.”

She said her mother was always volunteering her husband and children to help neighbors and relatives in need. A good work ethic was another primary value the couple held in common, according to Karen Lehman.

“Both Mom and Dad emphasized to us the pride of accomplishment in even little areas of work, like cleaning the house and washing the car,” she said.

Lehman said her father was always entertaining the children by telling stories with a hillbilly theme or drawing cartoons featuring them.

“God has certainly blessed us with wonderful role models of fidelity and love,” said Karen Lehman.

The Lehmans have 20 grandchildren; 45 great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild, with two on the way.

“With Valentine's Day nearby, it seems such good timing to recognize the commitment and witness of our parents to my generation and those of their grand, great-grand and now great, great-grandchildren.”

During the ceremony last week, Alton held a black-and-white photo of the couple's 1937 wedding and recalled the first time he saw the former Elsie Costlow.

“Her family moved in across the street. I mowed the grass and caught a glimpse of her,” he said.

When asked about the couple's secret to a long and happy marriage, Alton smiled at his wife. “Just be true to each other,” he said.

Deborah A. Brehun is a staff editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-238-2111 or Staff writer Mary Pickels contributed to this publication.

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