Monroeville couple's values, dedication guide them through 65 years of marriage
It's rare these days for anything to last 65 years, let alone a marriage.
The divorce rate in the U.S. for first marriages is nearly 50 percent, as experts debate the reasons behind the trend.
But one Monroeville couple wouldn't know anything about that, because after 65 years of marriage and 12 children, their dedication to each other has endured.
Gilmer and Mary McMillan celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary last weekend at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Monroeville with friends and family, which included more than 100 descendents — children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.
“You don't see too many people married for 65 years anymore,” family friend Mary Shields said. “They're a loving couple, and many people (at the ceremony) had wonderful things to say about them.”
Gilmer said he first laid eyes on Mary in a rural Virginia church, where her uncle was preaching and she was playing the piano.
Gilmer and Mary were raised in devout Christian families, though his attendance on that day was not a coincidence. His sisters persuaded him to make the trip home from Winston-Salem, N.C. — the “big city” where he was working at the time.
“My sisters, they always would help me out with girlfriends,” Gilmer said with a smile. “So they told me, ‘There's a nice girl in town; you better come home this weekend.'
“And that was the start of it all,” he said.
They married in 1948. Soon after, their oldest son was born.
Gilmer found a factory job in Pittsburgh, where he earned $55 per week. When he had earned enough money, he sent for Mary and their baby. They moved from Tioga Street, to Kelly Street to Braddock Avenue in Homewood as the family grew.
“The house was always full, and there was no privacy,” said Deborah Whitaker, who is one of their four daughters.
Money was short, and space was limited, but the children learned to appreciate what they had, Whitaker said.
“If we got one toy (at Christmas) that we really wanted, we were happy because our parents made it that way,” she said. “We didn't have much, but what we did have — our parents made very special for us.”
The children all were tasked with daily chores, while the older siblings helped raise the younger ones.
“The thing I remember is shoveling coal into the furnace,” said Paul McMillan, the oldest living son. “Those days are long gone.”
And regardless of their financial situation, the front porch at their home on Braddock Avenue always was immaculate, Whitaker said.
“People would admire her plants and her flowers,” she said about her mother. “We didn't own the house, of course, but she liked to do nice things.”
Many of those nice things were for other people.
Mary invited neighborhood children over for Bible study and donated whatever the family could spare to neighbors in need, Whitaker said.
When a neighbor's house burned down, Mary and Gilmer took in four boys, which meant their children had to squeeze into one bedroom.
“They were big boys, rough boys, too,” Gilmer said.
But it was the right thing to do, Mary said.
“To me, they were just special,” she said. “I just felt the need. Especially when you have Christ in your life, you'll do things like that.”
Her dedication to the Christian faith continues today.
As a member for more than 20 years at the Morningside Church of God in Christ, Mary, 84, has become known as the “prayer warrior,” Shields said.
“She'll call members of the church and pray with them over the phone,” Shields said.
Prayer is what helped Mary get through the hard times.
Their oldest son, Gilmer Rex McMillan, fought in Vietnam, only to be shot and killed in Pittsburgh a few years later over a petty dispute, Mary said.
“He was just getting back to being himself, mentally,” she said.
Four of his younger brothers then joined the military to honor their brother's death, Gilmer said.
“They do a lot of things together as a family,” Shields said. “And they love their mother and father.”
The family celebrated Gilmer and Mary's 50th wedding anniversary with the formal wedding they never had.
“She just glided down the aisle in her gown,” Whitaker said. “And the grandkids came and looked down the aisle at Grandma. It was just the sweetest thing.”
The ceremony was followed by a family trip to the East Coast, where Mary saw the ocean for the first time.
The couple again renewed their vows last weekend, followed by a rendition of “Unforgettable” by their son, Herndon, who was the disc jockey for the evening.
“(Gilmer) just melted, and he laid his head on her shoulder,” Shields said.
As the couple sat down for an interview two weeks ago, Gilmer, 85, joked that he had no choice but to put on a suit.
“She's the boss, or she thinks she's the boss, anyway,” he said.
But jokes aside, the couple has learned the importance of respecting each other's thoughts, emotions and boundaries over the years, Mary said.
“In marriages, you have difficult times, but we've learned to respect one another,” she said.
“You're not ‘one' until you go through certain things. And you've got to know that you'll stick and you'll stand in spite of (the hard times). You learn how to stand and love one another continuously. And you forgive one another and you go on.”
Her words carry with them the wisdom of the ups and downs.
“I was thinking to myself ‘Wow, 65 years. How did I get here?' ” Mary said.
“It doesn't seem that long. It seems like yesterday.”
Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or firstname.lastname@example.org.