When 19-year-old Norm Hinkleman met his bride-to-be in 1937, the Great Depression had left him so poor that he sometimes wore cardboard on his feet while he saved up for a $3 pair of shoes.
Norm and Helen Hinkleman have come a long way since those days in upstate New York, but three-quarters of a century of marriage has had its ups and downs.
The Cary couple will celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary on Tuesday – a milestone so rare that it’s not tracked by the U.S. Census.
Norm, 98, and Helen, 96, swore to care for each other in sickness and in health when they wed in 1939, two years after a friend had set them up on a double date.
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They’ve seen sickness.
Helen had a stroke more than 30 years ago that paralyzed her right side. She is unable to speak.
“It was hard,” said Norm, who was thrust into the unfamiliar roles of nurse, cook, homemaker and caretaker in his 60s, just after retiring from his job at IBM.
He had to give up the daily caretaking duties for his wife about 14 years ago, and Helen now lives in a skilled nursing facility.
But Norm said he never considered leaving his bride – not after Helen’s stroke, not in the 20 years he cared for her, not since they’ve been living apart.
“I never thought of the marriage not lasting,” he said.
They’ve been through so much together, after all.
Norm helped build bombers during World War II before taking a job as a door-to-door salesman. He then spent 35 years with IBM, a job that brought the couple to Cary in 1965.
They had a son and two daughters, one of whom died many years ago.
Helen quit her waitressing job early on to care for their children and their home full time. She started garden clubs in New York and Cary.
They honeymooned after their wedding to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where they saw new technology like the television and had the opportunity to hear speeches by Franklin Roosevelt and Albert Einstein.
The couple later went on vacations to Venezuela, Bermuda, Alaska and the American west.
Norm said one of the most important lessons he has learned is to travel often with family – not just after retirement – and to savor the moment.
“Live it up,” he said. “You’ll have some deals that are bad, some that are good. But you never know what the future will hold.”
Norm said the key to their long marriage is “getting along.”
“Working together on small projects, and not fighting,” he said.
Wally Hinkleman, the couple’s son, said he has learned plenty of lessons from his parents’ relationship. He has been married for 27 years.
They taught him “to be able to have more patience than I’ve got,” he said. “And to not stress on the little things. Focus on the big picture.”
As he planned his parents’ anniversary celebration, he realized it’s a bittersweet affair.
Any couple who has made it so long has almost certainly outlived their friends.
When Norm was a young man, he and his buddies used to talk about the distant and mysterious year 2000. Now he’s the only one still around.
“We had a group who played on our street growing up, and I can’t think of one who’s alive,” he said. “And our friends here (in North Carolina) have mostly passed away.”