Golden marriages: Columbus teens who became Harris County couples celebrate 50th anniversaries after switching dates

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comApril 21, 2013 

Seemingly everyone predicted their marriages wouldn't last. After all, as dating Columbus teens in the early 1960s, Gene and Mary, and Harry and Olivia, broke up in only a few months.

But after they switched the targets of their affections, Gene and Olivia, and Harry and Mary, dropped out of high school to elope -- and now, as Harris County couples, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversaries this month with another kind of elopement when they drove away in their motor homes for a jaunt to Nashville.

Combined, they produced six children, 12 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and countless memories.

As they joked and finished each other's sentences during an interview, they also expressed wisdom about what has made their golden marriages survive and thrive.

The wives, then known as Mary Cox and Olivia Owen, have been

friends since second grade at Clubview Elementary. Gene "E.B." Nelson and Harry Condrey were a year ahead of them in school and became friends in the seventh grade at Arnold Junior High.

The pairings began when ninth-grader Harry started dating eighth-grader Olivia. Gene and Mary followed suit. All of them laughed when asked what caused them to break up.

"Young and dumb, I guess," Harry chuckled.

"We just realized we were more compatible with the other person," Mary concluded diplomatically.

Olivia and Gene were the first new duo.

"I think y'all already had it planned," Mary said with a smile.

"Yeah, we were making eyes at each other," Gene confessed.

"That was kind of a touchy situation," Olivia admitted. She then pleaded a full mea culpa: "I think I was an instigator in breaking Gene and Mary up."

The giggles turned to howls in the Nelsons' living room when Olivia added, "I think I told Gene that Mary was flirting with other boys."

"Boy, this is going to get good now," said Gene, shaking his head.

"When he broke up with her," Olivia said, "he had the gall to tell her the reason was because he wanted to date me. But she didn't get mad at me. She was just kind of boo-hooing."

"But, you know, I'm serious now," Gene said. "There was never any hard feelings."

"Let's back up a little bit," Harry interjected. "Mary didn't get all that shook up because she had boys coming on to her all the time."

A few weeks later, Harry and Mary were an item.

"Something just clicked," Mary said.

Being more puppy love than raging romance helped avoid jealousy -- so did their friendship. Instead of bickering about the past, they focused on the gift of the present and planned for their futures.

They double-dated at the Rexview and Edgewood drive-ins. They hung out at house parties.

"We all cared for each other," Gene said. "That's what it was. We really did."

Marriage

In high school, Gene and Harry attended Jordan. Mary and Olivia went to Columbus in the ninth grade, but Olivia transferred to Jordan in 10th grade.

None of them went beyond their sophomore year. They went against their parents' wishes and secretly married. They lied about their ages to convince Judge Henry H. Hunter to marry them at the former Muscogee County courthouse in 1963, Gene and Olivia on April 3, Harry and Mary on April 6.

"My mother pitched a fit," Mary said. "She was ready to sue the City of Columbus, but she was talked out of it."

Harry added, "I had relatives say we had ruined our lives."

A week later, Gene joined the Navy. When he returned that summer from boot camp, the foursome "honeymooned" in Panama City.

"We probably had two nickels between the both of us," Harry said.

So their suite was Gene's 1947 Mercury the first night before they shared a motel room the next two nights.

They dined on potted meat and bologna sandwiches.

All of them eventually earned their GEDs. Gene spent three years in the Navy and worked for Lockheed in Marietta. Then he and Olivia returned to Columbus in 1978 and worked for BellSouth until they retired. Harry worked for Hardaway Ford, and he and Mary retired as co-owners of Bi-City Body Works.

"Everybody said it wasn't going to work," Gene said. "Maybe that had something to do with it."

"Determination," Olivia added.

"Teenage rebellion," Harry countered.

Mary warned, "I certainly wouldn't recommend that for other young people, even though it has a happy ending."

"Times have changed," Harry explained. "The degree of maturity kids reach, what they are taught in school, it's not the same as when we grew up."

So they defied the odds as well as their parents, who eventually accepted and loved their sons and daughters in-laws.

"I just don't think we would let ourselves fail," Mary said.

"None of our families were well-to-do," Gene said. "They basically scrimped to get by. So when we left home, there was no option of going back, because the other kids would get your bed."

"We never broke up," Harry said. "We never went home to mama. We never spent a night apart."

Lessons

Now, their children and grandchildren are friends.

"Every one of our kids have always said they wished they had the marriages that we have," Gene said. "Our kids have been through some divorces. When they look at our marriages, they don't see perfect marriages, but they see marriages that have worked because we've worked at it."

"I set the bar too high," Harry said, beaming.

The Condreys and Nelsons agree they have built their beautiful bonds through everyday acts of kindness and joy, not waiting for the grand moments.

"They see the love," Mary said, "but they also see the little spats that we don't let get in the way. You decide what is a big deal and what isn't."

"You walk away from a fight," Gene said.

"You don't say hurtful things," Mary said. "You can't take it back once it's out of your mouth."

They confide in each other and console each other. They can advise without offending. They keep private what's supposed to be private, and they share everything else.

And their friendship remains at the core. They remember the liking came before the loving.

"We've had a strong foundation to build from," Harry said. "For us to stay together all this time, we know you can't replace friendships as old as ours."

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