Unity couple reaches rare milestone with 75th wedding anniversary
A thin, rectangular box collects dust in Harry and Velma Smith’s closet. It’s inscribed with the date May 17, 1944.
Inside are the delicate lace remains of the dress and veil Velma Smith scrambled to find for her wedding amid World War II. There also is a message written by groom Harry Smith Jr., as if the couple could forget their special day 75 years ago:
“The wedding dress of the most beautiful bride in the world — ‘Velma,’” the message reads, followed up with song lyrics. “Honey, I’m in love with you.”
What came in the 75 years after the fresh-faced couple exchanged vows is the stuff of love stories. They had four children, played countless rounds of golf, took numerous family vacations and eventually settled in Unity Township.
There have been some sleepless nights over those decades, but for good reason.
“We sort of decided we would never go to sleep angry, so we stayed up pretty late sometimes straightening things out,” Velma Smith, 97, said.
A 75th wedding anniversary is a rare feat, said Susan L. Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.
“So many factors have to align — current age, age at marriage, having avoided divorce,” Brown said. “It’s an extremely rare, almost unheard of phenomenon.”
Just 6 percent of marriages defy the odds of death and divorce to even reach a 50th anniversary, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
It all started with a blind date.
A mutual friend at the time, Betty Strobel, set up the pair at a dance. Harry Smith, 98, grew up in Brackenridge and was studying engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.
Velma — her maiden name is Smith — was attending nursing school close by at Allegheny Valley Hospital in Natrona Heights after growing up in Apollo. He was 20; she was 19.
Velma remembered being hesitant.
“No way, I didn’t want a blind date,” she said.
But it seems to have worked out.
“Well, we dated then and we’re still dating,” Harry said.
When World War II started, he enrolled in the university’s ROTC program and was activated in July 1943 to an Army base. The military sent Harry, then a senior, back to Pitt later that year and he graduated. Afterwards, he returned to the military in North Carolina while Velma started work as a registered nurse.
They talked about getting married and Harry’s mother bought the engagement ring for him.
He got a short leave of absence in May 1944 and headed back to Pennsylvania. He and Velma married in a quickly planned ceremony with about 15 guests at a Natrona-area church.
“It took just a couple days, there was no time to be excited,” Velma said.
They had a wedding breakfast afterward and jumped on a train for a quick honeymoon in Washington, D.C.
“Her dad gave me $20 and my dad gave me $20 and that’s what we started off with,” Harry said.
Their life together began in Little Rock, Ark., with the Army. Velma found work at a children’s hospital. Harry eventually got orders that he was being sent overseas weeks before his new bride was to give birth to their first child, Harry III.
“She had the baby when I was on the Pacific someplace,” he said. “It was an anxious time. I knew where I was, but she didn’t know where I was.”
The war ended a couple months later. Harry eventually came home after about a year in Japan. The young couple found a home in Natrona Heights, and he got an engineering job in 1946 with Pittsburgh Plate Glass in Creighton. He was later transferred to different plants in Maryland, West Virginia, Greensburg and Texas, where he retired in 1986 before settling back in Pennsylvania.
“We moved around about four or five times,” Harry said. “That kept Velma busy packing and unpacking.”
Meanwhile, their family expanded. Harry III, Tom and Patty grew up in Maryland. Daughter Becky graduated from Greater Latrobe. In the decades since, their family has grown even more — now numbering eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, with a sixth on the way.
“Our whole life was devoted to our family,” Harry said. “They were our joy the whole time, and we are proud of their success and everything they’ve done.”
Staying active, healthy
The average duration of marriage in the United States is 20 years, said Brown, the university researcher. With the median age of first-time grooms and brides on the rise — from 20 for women and 22 for men in the mid-1950s to 28 for women and 30 for men in 2018, according to center statistics — milestones may become harder to reach simply because of life expectancy, Brown said.
“Even just to get to something like 50 years is an achievement,” she said.
The Smiths learned to ski when they were in their 50s, and they’ve traveled to 26 countries. Harry points to their active, healthy lifestyle as a contributing factor to their long marriage.
“It was pretty easy, it just happened,” Velma said.
They plan to celebrate Saturday with a special Mass at Saint Vincent College followed by a luncheon at home with family. An enlarged version of the only photograph from their wedding day — with him in his Army uniform and her in a long gown — hangs in the couple’s finished basement. It likely will take center stage at the celebration.
“Seventy-five years indicates it was a beautiful marriage and the two Smiths really enjoyed it,” Harry Smith said. “The reason I married her, she was always a lot of fun. We always had a good time.”
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter .