John and Ann Betar, a Fairfield, Conn. couple who eloped to escape an arranged marriage 80 years ago, have been honored as the longest-married couple in the U.S. by an organization dedicated to strengthening marriage.
“John and Ann really exemplify people who are committed to a long-term marriage,” Dick Baumbach, a coordinator of Worldwide Marriage Encounter's Lifelong Marriage Project, told CNA Feb. 15.
“They didn’t really see their achievement as that much, except as two people who have been very much in love and have been for a few years.”
“Long marriages can exist in this country,” Baumbach said.
The Betars grew up in a Syrian emigrant community in Bridgeport, Conn. John, who is about four years older than Ann, used to drive her to school in his Ford Roadster.
Ann was supposed to marry a man 20 years older in a marriage arranged by her father. Instead, the couple decided to elope to Harrison, N.Y. to be married. She was 17. He was 21.
“Some people said it would never last. We showed them,” John said.
John is now 101 years old and Ann is 97. They have had five children, 14 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. They celebrated their 80th anniversary on Nov. 25, 2012.
Ann said she and her husband are “very fortunate.”
“It is unconditional love and understanding. We have had that. We consider it a blessing,” she told ABC News in November.
“I fell for her right away,” John said. “Gradually she liked me and we got together.”
They have a picture of themselves in wedding clothes that was actually taken six months after their wedding. Ann borrowed a wedding dress from a friend.
After marrying, Ann became a housewife who raised the children.
John had sold newspapers in the 1920s for two cents per issue. He became a fruit peddler before opening his own grocery store in 1938. He retired in 1964.
The couple are founding members of their Antiochian Orthodox church. John bought a six-acre plot of land for the church next to his grocery store for $42,000 out of his own pocket.
The two have had some sadness in their life. Two of their children have died.
The couple recently survived Hurricane Sandy and had to move in with their granddaughter while their home was repaired. They are again living on their own at their home on the beach.
In his remarks to ABC, John gave some advice for a lasting marriage.
“Get along. Compromise. Live within your means and be content,” he said. “And let your wife be the boss.”
“We don’t have bosses,” Ann objected, recommending that spouses don’t hold grudges and live by their commitments.
Worldwide Marriage Encounter picked the Betars out of the many nominations it received from Oct. 15, 2012 to Jan. 10, 2013. It is possible there are U.S. couples who have been married longer, but their family and friends did not nominate them.
Baumbach with his wife and project coordinator Diane honored the Betars with at their granddaughters’ home in Fairfield, Conn. on Feb. 9. The Baumbachs presented the couple with three framed certificates: one from the marriage encounter group, an official statement from Conn. Governor Daniel Malloy, and a statement of recognition from Congress.
Baumbach said the award shows that long-married couples “can be a light to the world for what they accomplish.”
The Betars will also receive several presents whose delivery was delayed by the winter storms in the northeast.
Worldwide Marriage Encounter was founded by a Spanish priest in 1952. It has offered faith-based weekend marriage enrichment retreats for 44 years. Its present programs include evening and half-day programs presented at parishes and other church venues. The organization has a presence in almost 100 countries.