Decades of devotion

In 50 years of marriage,
Mary and Bill Russell have fostered their love
through support and encouragement
Sunday, February 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:19 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mary and Bill Russell part with a hug and a kiss. She’ll be gone less than 12 hours, but for Bill each moment without her seems more permanent.

Bill waves goodbye and already misses her when he returns to their apartment at the Tiger Columns. They’ve never been separated for long.

“Every time she leaves, it feels as if she’s gone forever. I know that she’ll be back at 5 p.m., but it just feels like that,” he says. Four times a year, she gets injections of osteoporosis medication in St. Louis.

Mary, 75, and Bill, 74, still make the effort to buy just the right gift on Valentine’s Day even though they celebrated their 50th anniversary last June. When buying gifts, there are no surprises. They tell each other what they want. It’s practical, but the gift-giving comes from the heart.

And chocolate-covered strawberries are a must.

They keep rituals without falling into a routine, are curious and encourage each other to explore new experiences.

Mary says her husband is a very talented, kind and caring person. She says, “It is just so much fun to live with you, Bill.”

They met while studying at Washington University in St. Louis in the 1950s, lived in Massachusetts and in France for a while, raised three children and moved to Tiger Columns two years ago. Their youngest, Marianne, lives near Columbia; their oldest, Sallie, lives in Spain; and their son, Jeff, lives in Alaska. Frequent contact by phone or e-mail and a deep love for each other keeps the family together in spite of the distances.

It may have been a little early for them to move to a retirement center, Mary and Bill say, but this way they can really enjoy downtown. And they do — they attend every parade, bazaar and festival, and they love concerts at the Missouri Theatre.

Mary is active in the Episcopal Church. She also reads to school children, leads a Bible study at Tiger Columns and writes short stories. Bill, who calls himself the house-husband, has written their family histories this past year. He volunteers in Peace Nook’s food co-op and exercises at Gold’s Gym twice a week to strengthen his heart.

Their daughter, Marianne Marti, 43, finds it “inspiring that they have always reached out to and been involved with people outside the immediate family.”

Their age doesn’t slow them down, but they are aware of it and take care of their health. The couple moved to Columbia to be closer to their daughter.

“She’s the one who has to take care of us one day,” Mary says.

Their belief in God forms a strong foundation in their lives. The Russells wake up at 5:30 a.m. and take time for prayers, meditation and Falun Gong, a Chinese health and spiritual practice. Every morning while he “talks to God,” Bill sorts two tablespoons of flax seeds for Mary.

“It’s not that he tells me such awful new things, but it’s just nice to talk to him,” he says.

Mary and Bill have always lived a respectful, equal and sharing partnership rather than “an arrangement of a president and a vice president,” as Bill puts it.

Switching roles is an important part of that. Mary cooked for 38 years; now Bill is the chef and enjoys it very much. Mary takes care of the shopping because Bill “tends to overbuy” and comes home with 10 different items instead of the three they needed.

They adore, strengthen and complement one another. Daughter Marianne says, “I really admire how they have constantly adjusted and grown, as individuals and as a couple, for 50 years.”

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