YORK, Maine — Gerald and Gwyneth Wykes met each other during World War II, still teenagers living in the war-ravaged city of Coventry, England. She turned down his proposal at first. How could she know he would live, she would live, when people all around her were dying? How could anything good grow out of such rubble?
But good did indeed come. On Tuesday, they celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. At 90 and 91, respectively, they have just downsized, moving into a York Harbor condominium from their York home of 30 years, to which they moved just five years shy of Gerald’s retirement.
Their daughter, and others, asked them why they didn’t consider a retirement community as they contemplated this move.
“When people know your age, the impression is, why aren’t you in assisted living? I’ve had a lot of that lately,” said Gwyneth, a telltale note in her British voice of her parents’ Welsh roots. “The idea of being in an apartment when you have to go down the hall to leave — it would be so wearing.”
The phrase, “when people know your age” is pertinent to the Wykes — as neither appear to be even close to nonagenarians. Gerald has just recently had some health issues, Gwyneth not at all. They look, act and converse like a couple much younger than their years — no cane in sight as they navigate their two-floor condo.
He will hug her, she will smile at him with a twinkle in her eye, perhaps a reflection after all these years of a marriage that they began in friendship. Gwyneth was “16 and a half” and Gerald “17 and a half” when they met on the ballroom dance floor.
“All I saw was this massive red hair coming and I said was, ‘Oh, no,’” said Gerald. “After dancing, I got home about midnight and woke up my parents. I said, ‘I’ve met a girl.’ They went, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and went back to sleep.”
The two ended up dancing competitively, but while they were partners on the floor, off the floor they were just friends. Gwyneth said she was just too fearful to see it develop further. Coventry is the oldest city in England, and its medieval center, she said. Starting in 1940 and continuing through 1942, the German Air Force blanketed the city with thousands of bombing raids, making it the most heavily bombed city in England.
“Churchill said that no devastation has been known like it,” she said. “People would be weeping in the streets. Within half an hour of our house, there was a mass grave. Every day when I went to school I passed the open graves. As teenagers, we were very much affected. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Because you didn’t know.”
Since moving to York, she has told her stories about Coventry over and over, to young children in the schools and to civic groups. Two years ago, she gave the Ramsdell-Rogers American Legion Post a picture of the iconic Coventry Cathedral in ruins after one of those bombing raids. It was, she said, a small gesture to thank the Americans for their help during the war.
Into this devastation occurring around her, she said, “I wasn’t thinking about relationships. I was looking for friendship. He was always my friend. We talked about everything.”
“No hanky panky! Nothing,” Gerald said with a smile. “If I said, would you like to go to the movies, we’d put our monies together. How much do you have, how much do I have? We actually became partners because we shared everything right from the beginning.”
In fact, she would be 20 and he 21 before they married, after Gerald courted her “gradually, gradually,” she said. She remembers the first time he kissed her, during a picnic.
“I cried and cried. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t find anything to make me really happy,” she said. And here was this kiss, this happy kiss, and all of her stored emotions came bursting forth, she said.
“I didn’t have a lot of experience,” Gerald said. “I said, ‘I don’t think it’s supposed to work out like this.’”
A mechanical and aeronautical engineer, Gerald spent nearly his entire working life employed by Westinghouse Corporation, first in Toronto then in Chicago. They became Canadian citizens and then, later, American citizens.
At each step, they said, they talked — that old familiar friendship now layered atop a marriage.
“Each move was a joint effort,” Gwyneth said. “We’re both pretty sensible, and whatever it’s taken to make life good, we were prepared to go the extra mile.
“It took every ounce to make everything work sometimes,” she continued. And when they reached a stalemate? Gwyneth would get in her car — always a snazzy one and today a sports car — and drive, “sometimes for an hour, sometimes longer. And he would wait.”
They moved to York when Gerald was 60, after he was offered the job of vice president of Watts Fluid Air in Kittery, started by a Westinghouse friend. It is here that their daughter settled with her family, following her parents to York. Their now 35-year-old grandson, who lives here as well, was a child when she began taking on the role as Queen Elizabeth for the annual York Middle School Shakespeare Festival — something she thoroughly enjoyed.
Even today, she said, several years after the festival ran its course, “I can’t go to Hannaford’s without being hugged. It’s really been quite remarkable.” And she’s ready to don the crown again, should circumstances require.
They look not only back on their lives, but forward as well, as they ready to celebrate their anniversary on Tuesday.
“The incredible scope of where we’ve lived and everything we’ve tried to accomplish, it’s been quite something,” Gwyneth said. “It’s been such an interesting ride.”