Mike and Dawn Silsbee were the model Raleigh couple – literally.
In 1975, the bride- and groom-to-be were featured on the cover of “Spring Bride,” a bridal advertising section once published by The News & Observer.
Dawn Silsbee, then Dawn McDonald, had a background in modeling. And in high school, friends referred to the duo as “Barbie and Ken” because they were both blonde and played lead roles in the school play. So the couple felt natural posing in front of a camera wearing a gown from Hudson Belk and a tuxedo from Sharpe’s formal wear.
As transplants from New York, though, they felt a little out of place as prominent faces of the Triangle community.
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“I’m sure no one knew us,” Mike said.
Forty years later, they’re still in the Triangle and still together. In fact, they say they’re doing better than ever. To celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary on May 31, they renewed their wedding vows at First United Methodist Church in Cary.
The Silsbees considered the event as an appropriate way to reflect on how far they’ve come, and as a gesture to signify how their bond will endure in their next stage of life.
“You have to keep it new,” Mike said in an interview before the ceremony.
“So (the night of May 31) we’re going to the round Holiday Inn downtown on Hillsborough Street, where we stayed after our wedding,” he said. “I thought it would be fun to look out over Raleigh and see what’s changed in 40 years, and think about what’s changed with us in 40 years.”
For one thing, Mike doesn’t have to hitchhike from New York to North Carolina anymore to see Dawn. After meeting at Chenango Valley High School in Binghamton, New York, in 1967, they attended college in separate states.
Mike attended the State University of New York in Binghamton. Dawn attended a private college in Pennsylvania before transferring to UNC-Greensboro to be closer to her parents, who had moved from New York to North Carolina.
“Back then, (hitchhiking) was safe to do,” Mike said. “Our generation was doing that, and people were very nice.”
They don’t have to work long hours make ends meet, either. Now in their early 60s, the Silsbees say they’re “nearing retirement age” after working for the state for many years. Dawn works as an executive assistant and translator – she speaks Spanish – for N.C. State University. Mike worked in the state Department of Public Safety for years, starting off as a correctional officer who often worked the night shift.
“For a year, I would come home in the morning at 7 and she would be going out the door to N.C. State,” Mike recalled.
“We were like ships passing in the night,” Dawn said.
The Silsbees now live in Cary and have two adult daughters – Tiffany Silsbee, 33, and Allison Donnelly, 26.
Before renewing their vows, they shared stories and bits of wisdom they’ve learned after being together 40 years. They attribute much of their marital success to dating for seven years before getting married, and then waiting another seven years before having their first child.
“I think there are fewer surprises that way,” Dawn said. “When you know someone really well, you know whether or not you’ll be able to get along with them or live with them.”
Here are excerpts from the interview.
What did you expect from marriage, and what was different from your expectations?
Dawn: I think that so many people these days think that marriage is two people continuing to live their lives, and just doing it together. And it’s about merging those lives. Not necessarily doing everything together, but it’s about being a married couple. Include them in things. You work with your husband or wife to make sure that that’s OK with them.
Mike: We’ve always had different interests, but that hasn’t stopped us from sharing those interests and enjoying each other. We still talk to each other about what happens everyday.
Dawn: You can’t ever let that die. You don’t ever want to take the other person for granted. We tell each other we love each other every day. The relationship doesn’t evolve by not interacting.
Why did you start dating after going to a dance together in 1967?
Dawn: He was this good-looking blonde California guy, and I sort of thought he was a hunk. I still do. I liked the rock solid personality he had. He wasn’t goofy. He was very mature and polite and courteous. I thought all of that was very appealing.
Mike: She was an attractive young blonde. If she’s gonna call me up and ask me to go (to a dance), I’d better go find out what it’s about.
Were there times when the relationship was tough?
Dawn: Yes, financially. Everyone has those tough times at the beginning.
Mike: Fortunately, Dawn never had a great expectation about us living beyond our means.
Dawn: We have an agreement that if one of us is going to spend a certain dollar amount, that we talk to each other about it before we do it to make sure it’s OK with the other person. We established it at the beginning of our relationship.
Did you share the same parenting philosophies?
Mike: When I was training and traveling and working part-time, her nickname was “The Warden.” You’ve got to set those limits.
Dawn: Children have to be able to predict what you’re going to do 100 percent of the time. If I say, you can’t go out and play. You have to follow through on it. You have to mean what you say.
Dawn recalled an instance when she grounded her oldest daughter on a Monday and, by Friday, had forgotten about the punishment.
“She went out the door and I saw this smirk on her face and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I grounded her and forgot all about it.’ So then I started writing it on the calendar.”
If things have been so good over the years, why renew your vows?
Dawn: Because we still love each other. We’re going to another chapter in our lives.
Mike: We’ve been on this journey raising children for 29 years. Now we’re getting ready to retire in the not-too-distant future. And we’re going to enjoy our lives, together, aging.
If you had one piece of advice for other couples, what would it be?
Mike: Take the time to get to know each other. Don’t complicate your life with children unless you have the resources to take a little time with yourselves. Be sure you’re ready for a change that will change your life. The focus shifts from your relationship to the children.
Dawn: Communication is the most important thing in a relationship.