Key to marriage of 76 years: 'Yes, dear'

John “Jack” Essenburg, 97, kisses wife Ella, 96, at their winter home in Seminole. The couple, from Holland, Mich., remember $10-a-week paychecks, when people were more caring, and when a mother had but one job. He likes hunting and fishing; she likes sports.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

John “Jack” Essenburg, 97, kisses wife Ella, 96, at their winter home in Seminole. The couple, from Holland, Mich., remember $10-a-week paychecks, when people were more caring, and when a mother had but one job. He likes hunting and fishing; she likes sports.

SEMINOLE — For the Essenburgs, the news is sadly familiar: staggering unemployment, failing banks and families struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.

John "Jack'' and Ella Essenburg are contemporaries of the Great Depression. It's when they met, married and started their family that now extends to five generations.

Today, the Essenburgs — he's 97 and she's 96 — are celebrating their 76th wedding anniversary. Asked the secret of their marriage, he joked that it can be summed up in two simple words: "Yes, dear."

Whatever the answer, the couple have developed the well-honed rhythm of longtime companionship.

Sunday mornings, for instance, they settle in front of the television to catch the "possibility thinking'' philosophy espoused by Robert H. Schuller's Hour of Power. That's after Ella Essenburg has prepared and served a breakfast that could include oatmeal, eggs and bacon, toast or, a favorite, strudel. Orange juice is a given. Jack Essenburg's job is to set the table. He does that the night before.

The couple were in good humor while talking about their lives during an interview in Seminole. They talked about family, hobbies and current affairs and reminisced about the past.

Most of their friends are gone now. Jack Essenburg and his 87-year-old sister are the only survivors among five children. Ella Essenburg, the second of 10 children, is the only one left.

The Essenburgs remain positive despite health problems. "We've been real fortunate,'' he said.

Their home is Holland, Mich., but each winter since 1978, they've escaped to Roycroft RV Park.

"I ran the bingo here for 17 years,'' he said.

Ben Nourse lives across the street and has known and admired the Essenburgs for about 10 years.

"They are so friendly and outgoing and still able to do for themselves,'' he said. "She gets around like she's 40 years old.''

"Nothing slows Mother down,'' agreed Betty Hamlin, 66, one of the couple's three daughters.

"She's just a little bitty thing. She does all the cooking, all the cleaning. Her and I still have so much fun together ... She makes the world's best chocolate cake and beef roast.''

It's just as well. Jack Essenburg is a meat and potatoes man.

Also, "Dad likes a little schnapps once in a while,'' Hamlin said, an observation that drew a burst of laughter from her father.

He misses hunting, she said.

"He would love to go fishing. He was going to go deer hunting in Michigan last year, but my mother said, 'You're not going deer hunting.' I say the woman has to be a saint. I really do. Dad was always hunting and fishing with the boys. She'd paint a room in the house just to surprise him when they got home,'' Hamlin said.

At one time Jack Essenburg sang in barbershop quartets, his wife in a Sweet Adelines trio.

"Music has been a big thing in our lives,'' he said, going on to tell the story of meeting Gerald Ford in his prepresidential days.

"He came over and said, 'Do you mind if I sing a number with you?' ''

Jack Essenburg and his group didn't mind.

These days, his hobbies are sedentary, mostly word circle books and newspaper crosswords. His wife still plays bingo. She also enjoys certain TV programs.

"I like baseball and football, any sport,'' she said. A must-watch is the soap opera The Young and the Restless.

The Essenburgs met in 1931. A friend introduced them, but Jack Essenburg had been a hunting buddy of his future wife's brother. They married two years later. Why a December wedding? They just thought it was a pretty time of year, said Ella Essenburg, who wore a long white satin gown she bought in Chicago. Her father built a lattice arch for the wedding, and it was covered with blue lights.

Those were bleak economic times, though. Jack Essenburg, who retired after 50 years as a printer for what is now called the Holland Sentinel newspaper, was taking home $10 a week. For parties, he and his friends pooled nickels to buy whiskey by the pint.

The couple have seen attitudes change through the years.

"People are not as caring,'' said Ella Essenburg. Family life is different, too.

"I never worked when the kids were little babies, because I never thought it was right ... I had five kids to take care of."

They now range in age from 54 to 75. Last year, the Essenburgs' far-flung brood — now grown to 17 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren, with one on the way — descended on their Michigan hometown to celebrate the couple's 75th anniversary.

This year's celebration will be more low-key. Hamlin and her husband will take them out to dinner. The mobile home park will hold a party. There will be an arch with blue lights.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Key to marriage of 76 years: 'Yes, dear' 12/22/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 22, 2009 11:46am]

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