On Nov. 25, 1932, FDR had just defeated Herbert Hoover, the daily newspaper cost two cents, and Ann Shawah said “I do” to John Betar in Harrison, N.Y.
Fast forward through 13 presidents and 80 years to 2012: the Betars are still happily married. After five children, 14 grandchildren and 16 great children, the couple from Fairfield, Conn., will celebrate their 80th wedding anniversary Sunday.
“We are so blessed. We are fortunate,” John Betar, 101, said.
“We are very fortunate. It can be repeated and repeated,” Ann, 97, echoed. “It is unconditional love and understanding. We have had that. We consider it a blessing.”
John Betar met Ann Shawah growing up in the same Syrian community in Bridgeport, Conn. Betar immigrated to America as a young child in 1921 with his brother, he explained, joining his father who put down roots for them in Bridgeport. After attending grammar school, Betar began working as a fruit peddler and met Ann Shawah, the daughter of Syrian immigrants, in the neighborhood.
“I fell for her right away,” he said. “I used to have a Ford Roaster and I used to pick her and her friends and drive them to high school. Gradually she liked me and we got together.”
It was slightly more complicated than that. Ann was arranged to be married to another man, 20 years her senior, whom her parents thought would be the best provider for their daughter. The 17-year-old was less than pleased with the arrangement and taken with Betar, then 21. Breaking with tradition and going against her family’s wishes, the two eloped.
“At 17, you wonder if you’re making the right choice,” she said. “I had grown up with him and we had good times together and we knew each other very well. And it’s turned out to be 80 years. ….God seems to have been with us. And we’ve been very fortunate and wonderful.”
The two built a life together, a home, a family and lived out their own version of the American dream. Betar continued peddling fruit and in 1938, opened up his own grocery store, Betar’s Market, in the south end of Bridgeport.
“We worked hard and never got tired of making money,” he said. “This is the land of opportunity.”
Ann stayed at home and raised their children. “She was a great mother,” Betar said. “She raised five children and she was a wonderful caretaker.”
Five children spawned 14 grandchildren and 16 great children. The couple said the later generations “bring new life” and light into their lives.
“Last year at [John’s] 100th birthday party … there was group of little 2 year olds and 5 year olds and a group that’s just turning 19 and 20,” Ann recalled. “We had it at the beach and we had fireworks. It was very special. The younger children went out on the beach and wrote ‘Happy Birthday Jiddo,’ [Grandpa in Arabic], in the sand, all along the beach. … How can you not feel God’s right with you and blessing you?”
Along with joyous moments and good memories like this one came bad times for the Betars.
“The hardest thing in our life was losing two of our children. That’s the sad part. It’s one of the worst thing a parent can face is losing a child, no matter how old they are or how young they are,” Ann said.
But despite the trying moments that can test or break a marriage, the two have stayed together.
“There are so many things in a lifetime that can make you very, very happy and very, very sad, but if you can do it together then it’s happiness,” Ann said.
That’s easier said than done for many couples today in the U.S. where the divorce rate hovers around 40 to 50 percent. What’s their secret?
“They have this wonderful ability to accept life as it comes,” their daughter Renee Betar said. “They have a way of trying to look around at the things that they do have — the family and the blessings. They came from a generation where there is such respect for each other and caring.”
The Betars consider themselves “fortunate.” Hesitant to dole out advice to newlyweds, they each offered simple, guiding mantras to a lasting marriage.
“Get along. Compromise. Live within your means and be content,” Betar said, before adding, “And let your wife be the boss.”
“We don’t have bosses,” she said. Her advice: don’t hold a grudge.
“You know what your commitments are and you try to live by them and understand one another. If you don’t hold a grudge, you can face anything,” Ann said.
The couple still lives independently on the beach in Fairfield and has kept active, pushing the boundaries of aging. In their later years, Ann discovered a hidden talent as an artist and took up painting in oils and watercolors. The two cook soup together, always from scratch. (The retired fruit peddler-turned-grocer continues to make outings to shop for the best produce and can’t help but dispense recommendations to fellow customers at the store, his daughter reports, saying: “Oh no, don’t buy that tomato if you want to eat it tonight.”) They spend their days reading and proudly keeping up with what’s going on in the world.
Celebrating 80 Years of Marriage
On Sunday, the couple will mark their 80th wedding anniversary with a quiet celebration surrounded by family and friends at the St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Bridgeport, where they are original founding members.
Ann said one of her daughters ordered a cake for the occasion and the baker called back, slightly confused, to confirm that it should read — “Happy 80th Anniversary” instead of “Happy 80th Birthday.”
After eighty years, Betar is still sweet on his bride and she is still sweet on him.
“He is a wonderful man. He is a very giving man to his children, to his family, to people that need it. He is a very generous, giving man,” she said. “Can you blame me for living with him for 80 years?”
To the later generations of children and grandchildren, the Betars serve as role models for how to live and love in life.
“I’m always blown away by their incredible optimism, deep sense of compassion and modesty,” said granddaughter Heather Mitchell of Fairfield, Conn. “They are true beacons — inspirational people who emit such joy without even knowing it.”