The couple pose with their certificate before celebrating with a small party at North Adams Commons.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — John Tietgens remembers with clarity his first date with Ellen Shields. They were sitting in his 1934 Chevy outside her parents' home on Hall Street on a Sunday afternoon when word came over the radio of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Despite a somewhat ominous start, the Tietgens were wed nearly three years later and persevered through war, illness, children, work and life to celebrate 72 years of marriage.
"A husband's duty is to protect and provide, and to take care of each other," John said on Monday afternoon, holding hands with a smiling, bright-eyed Ellen in the sunny front room at North Adams Commons. "She's taken care of me through a lot of things."
The couple was being recognized by Worldwide Marriage Encounter as the longest married couple in Massachusetts from nominations received from throughout the state.
The 50-year-old, faith-based, largely Catholic, non-profit is focused on strengthening and enriching marriages through weekend retreats. Brian and Ann Kolek, representing the organization, said the encounter had begun highlighting long and successful marriages seven years ago.
"We try to find the longest married couple in each state and of those couples nominated, one is recognized as the longest marriage in the nation," said Ann Kolek. This year, it was a couple in the state of Florida who had married in 1935.
The Tietgens had been nominated by their daughter Jean Kurpiel, one of their four children.
"It was just a fluke, it popped up on my screen when looking for Mass time," Kurpiel said. "I don't even remember why I needed to find a local Mass time."
The Koleks had planned to present a framed certificate from Worldwide Marriage Encounter on Valentine's Day, but the stormy weather that week put the trip from the Boston area on hold. The couple has been involved with the organization for four years and recently has begun representing it at recognition events.
They also read a letter of congratulation from Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of the Diocese of Springfield and a statement read into the Congressional Record recognizing Worldwide Marriage Encounter and the Tietgens.
"I never did it for recognition you know," laughed John, as Ann Kolek told him "it's all because you said 'I do.' "
While the certificate credits them with 72 years of marriage, it's closer to 73 years now, and they've been together for nearly 76.
They met at a high school basketball game at the Armory. He'd graduated from Drury High School and she was a senior at the former St. Joseph's High. Friends got them talking and "one thing led to another," said John, including their first date on that fateful Dec. 7.
They were married April 22, 1944, in the former St. Francis' Church. John was a private in the Army. They'd seen each other during leave but he was soon gone overseas for a year first in Europe, and was on his way to the Pacific when the Japanese surrendered.
"There was no communication allowed for over three months and that was real hard," he said, but thought "it was harder on her."
Tietgens is a well-known businessman and sportsman. He owned J.T. Bus Lines, which transported children to local schools for decades, and raced horses at the former Green Mountain Race Track in Pownal, Vt., which he later owned until selling in 2004. An outdoorsman, he enjoyed hunting and fishing around the country, often accompanied by Ellen. They lived on Franklin Street for many years until moving to Clarksburg in 1978.
It's been harder, he said, since Ellen began living at the nursing home three years ago. He comes down every day to sit with her and watch "Jeopardy."
"Ellen gets great care here," he said. "I'd like to have her home with me, I miss not being able to hold her. ... Ellen gets along with everybody. I've never heard her complaining all these years."
The Tietgens have three daughters — Joan, Jean and Jane — and a son, John; 11 grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren. Their children and a handful of grandchildren and great-grandchildren joined them on Monday.
"You might not think you've done anything amazing, but you inspire us," said Ann Kolek, speaking about couples in general. "There are days when we don't think we'll make it through another day, and we meet a couple that's been together for 73 years. ... If they can do it maybe we can do it, too."
The Koleks say they found "perseverance" is a staple of successful marriages in a disposable environment that sees nearly half of marriages fail.
"It wasn't 72 years of bliss, it took work and perseverance and remembering that the most important thing is your love for each other," said Brian Kolek to the Tietgens.
John, now 93, said the couple has at least another decade together as the family toasted their long-lived commitment.
"I plan on being around a lot longer," he said. "I hope we both hit 100."
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