Missouri couple fondly recall 80 years of marriage

Monday, March 22, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

PERRY — Have faith beyond belief, take frequent walks together, laugh more than you cry and make anger a stranger. That's the simple advice Russell and Leona Itschner offer for a happy marriage, and they should know. The Perry couple just celebrated its 80th anniversary. That's right, four score.

"We just haven't had any serious trouble," said Leona, 99. "We disagreed sometimes, but we never fell out or got mad. You've got to respect each other through good times and bad times."

''You got to get along," added Russell, 101. "That's the whole story. You've got to give and take. I did a lot of things she didn't like, and she did one or two things."

Russell remembers they got along from the start. They met on a sidewalk outside a barbershop in Macon. "She and a friend were coming down the street," Russell said. "I was talking to another girl. They were going to the picture show. They said 'You should go with us.'"

The two dated in high school. After attending Chillico the Business College, Russell worked as a bookkeeper for Leona's father at his coal company.

When he finally decided to visit the courthouse and get a marriage license, Russell found the clerk turned out to be the Sunday School superintendent at Leona's church. "He said 'I don't think Leona's old enough to get married,'" Russell said.

The man suggested Russell have Leona's father or mother call to confirm that the nuptials could take place. Russell went directly to the coal company office. "He said 'What do you want?'" Russell said. "I said 'I want you to call Mr. Frazee at the courthouse and tell him I want a marriage license.' He said, 'You thought you'd get by without asking me, didn't you?'"

The couple was married on March 8, 1930, by the Rev. O.L. Angel at his Macon home. Four friends served as attendants.

The stock market crash had happened just five months earlier, and the newlyweds did not have a honeymoon.

"We learned a lot early," Leona said. "We learned to eat a lot of macaroni and cheese."

''We were lucky," Russell said. "I had a job making $12 a week, and she had a job making $6 a week. I was never out of work. I never got a lot of money. Nobody else did, either."

Russell found jobs as a gas station attendant, a highway department worker, a delivery driver and a sample manager for a cereal company. Eventually, he and his brother-in-law started their own coal company in Macon.

The Itschners took long walks together and immersed themselves in church and community activities, such as card games and square dances. Leona raised vegetables to supplement meals.

"We didn't know we were having a hard time," Leona said. "Everybody else was in the same place."

Three years after they were married, the Itschners finally found time for a honeymoon. Russell, Leona and another couple spent 14 days touring the West. They had 74 silver dollars Russell had collected.

"We came home with 14," Leona said. "You couldn't do that now."

The outbreak of World War II prompted many Northeast Missouri coal miners to join the military. In 1942, the Itschners moved to Perry so that Russell could manage a mine there. At first, Leona was not impressed with the Ralls County town.

"This looked like the last of tea time," she said with a laugh. "There were tin roofs on some of the stores. Anyway, it turned out wonderful because the people from the church came and greeted us and we made lots of friends."

The electrical grid also left much to be desired.

"Nothing we had worked," Leona said. "Our refrigerator, our stove, nothing. And you couldn't buy anything because of the war. We went back to a coal oil stove and an ice box."

After the war, many of the former miners came home but found other jobs.

In 1948, Russell was appointed to the Perry Board of Public Works. When the boss left to join the service, Russell was recruited.

"I said 'I'll stay for a year, but I don't think I want that job,'" he said. "I ended up with 24 years."

With only one other worker and an old Dodge pickup truck, Russell was limited in what could be done. But he had a vision and did all he could to make it happen. At the time, Perry had dirt roads and no sewer system. Cars got stuck in the spring muck and septic tanks pumped raw sewage into the streets. Most electric meters were inside houses, including one home where the device was in the attic.

"There were a lot of meters on the front porch," Russell said. "Nobody used much power. You had a light bulb hanging from the ceiling."

The Itschners' dedication to the community was obvious. They were a part of many clubs and organizations, and Russell served as a fire chief and was one of the early promoters of development at Mark Twain Lake. Russell kept lobbying the city council for money and a little bit at a time, the streets got paved and a first-in-the-state sewer lagoon was installed.

"I told them we had to do a lot of work," said Russell, who back then could climb poles or dig ditches with ease but admits he still can't figure out how to work a microwave oven.

In 1965, the Itschners moved into the house they still call home. Eight years later, Russell retired, but the couple didn't slow down. They bought a hotel and rented rooms to traveling salesmen and visiting guests for $1.50 a night.

Then, there was stuff to do at home, where Leona always had a project in mind. "She had a lot for me to do," Russell said. "She said, 'You oughta do this and you oughta do that.'"

"I tore the front porch off the year we moved in and I've been remodeling ever since," Leona explained.

Over the years, Russell had collected a lot of tools and Leona had come across a lot of dishes. With help from their daughter, Shirley Levings, now 76, the Itschners opened an antique store. Today, there are two shops, both managed by Shirley.

The couple has two other daughters, Julia Itschner, 79, and Janna Gordanier, 62. There are three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The Itschners still enjoy visiting with friends, but many have passed on.

"You can live too long, you know it?" Leona said.

The Itschners admit to some differences. He's a Republican and she's a Democrat. He was a Presbyterian before switching to her denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Both were stubborn.

"He never drank, he never smoked, he never cussed, but you couldn't tell him what to do," Leona said. "He did what he pleased."

Russell bought one of their first houses sight unseen because Leona had told him she wanted it. He often was reminded of what his father had told him about playing baseball with some ruffians when he was young. "He said 'You do what you please, but you know what's right and you know what's wrong,'" Russell said.

The couple has slowed down a little in the last years. Leona has arthritis and Russell's weak knees keep him in a wheelchair most of the time. She takes only one medicine, a pill for high blood pressure. Russell has a pacemaker.

"We've had accidents — broken bones or this and that, nothing major," Leona said.

But when it comes to love, age is meaningless. Leona still gladly shows off the ruby ring her husband gave her for Valentine's Day eight decades ago, and he still puts his arm around her without hesitation.

"You're pushing me," Leona says as the couple gets in place to take a photo together.

"I just want to get you closer," Russell says.

The Itschners awake at 6 a.m. and go to bed about 11:30 p.m., and they don't take naps.

"We like the night life," Leona jokes.

If it can be called a regret, the Itschners only have one. "We've had nursing home insurance for 30 years," Leona said. "We thought we were going to need it and we haven't used it yet."

And they don't want to. "We plan to stay here 'til they drag us out," Leona said with a chuckle.


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