The men who worked with Chester A. Personette were not like him; they were easygoing, hearty, working-class guys who counted drinking beer at the end of a hard day at Bethlehem Steel as one of life's joys. So when the men insisted that Personette take a look at this girl working at a restaurant, Personette reluctantly agreed, doubting they knew his taste in women.
"I went anyway and took a look, and fell in love," said Personette, of the encounter that occurred more than 60 years ago, when he met his future wife, Mary, for the first time.
Decades later, the couple, still together, renewed their vows at an April 30 ceremony at the Fairfax Nursing Home, where they now live. Surrounded by their four adult children and the nursing staff, the Personettes celebrated their life together, which started in Baltimore during World War II and continued through Chester's military career and their family life in Vienna and St. Mary's County, Md.
"I know of so many broken marriages that it just amazes me that my parents are still so much in love after 62 years," said son Michael Personette. "Their example shows that men and women can make happy lives together if they just love each other enough."
THE COUPLE began their courtship at the onset of World War II. Both had come from broken homes — both of Mary Personette's parents died from tuberculosis when she was 3, and Chester Personette's family moved 17 times before he turned 18.
After they met for the first time, outside the restaurant where Mary was temporarily working, they went dancing at a beer garden. Mary liked the polka and was tickled that Chester would come with her, even if he couldn't dance well.
She waited for weeks before she could get him to admit that he had fallen for her. When they finally married in October 1941, Mary's brother walked her down the aisle, giving her away before he would succumb to his parents' ailment. She was 21 and Chester was 22.
"He was not a dancer, but there was something about him that caught my eye," said Mary Personette.
Shortly after they married, Chester Personette left their home to fight in World War II. He served as a navigator in the Army Air Corps, witnessing the battles in Europe. Mary Personette moved in with Chester's mother, and they became good, lifelong friends.
Yet events seemed to turn disastrous, as Mary Personette one day received a telegram stating that Chester was missing in action. The B17 bomber that he had been in had been "shot up" around Berlin.
"I prayed a lot for him: Bring him home, Lord. Make him safe," Mary Personette said.
Fortunately for both, Chester Personette was not dead, although he and his comrades were in peril. Anti-aircraft fire from the Germans was aimed at Chester's plane, and as he was looking out of the plane to determine where they were, Chester felt a bullet graze his head. If he had leaned out any farther, he would have been dead.
ALTHOUGH the anti-aircraft fire didn't take his life, it shot up three of the plane's four engines, so only one engine was running. It had also injured one of the pilots. The pilot demanded that they fly back to England, where he knew the medical attention would be good, but Chester Personette and the co-pilot determined that they wouldn't survive another flight over Berlin.
After they decided to continue to fly straight to the Eastern Front, the co-pilot spotted a field where the plane could land. Since Chester Personette wasn't injured and he was the navigator, he had to go out to the nose of the plane and give instructions to the co-pilot to land the plane.
By going to the nose of the plane, Chester Personette expected to die, since any landing would impact the nose first.
"My father fully believed he was going into the nose of the plane to die," Michael Personette said.
But Chester did not know that the co-pilot had trained on a B29, which was a bigger plane. Because of that, the co-pilot landed the plane softly, with the nose up.
Despite the landing, trouble hadn't left them yet. The co-pilot and Chester Personette needed to get their other comrades out of the plane, which they feared would explode. The other soldiers were trapped in the back of the plane, because dirt from the plane's landing had piled up against the radio room's door.
With urgency, Chester Personette went to the dirt and began digging with his bare hands. All the soldiers got out, and the Russians discovered them hours later. As soon as he could, Chester Personette wrote to his wife that he was safe.
Back home, Mary Personette read in the Baltimore newspaper that her husband had died. But she had received Chester Personette's letter, so she knew he was safe.
"I never gave up hope. I kept praying for him to come home," Mary Personette said.
Years later, the Personette children found out about their parent’s bravery, for which Chester Personette received a Purple Heart, only after their parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Michael Personette had only heard the humorous side of the story: As Chester Personette was digging out his comrades, the box that held their excrement opened up and mixed with the dirt. After Chester Personette rescued his fellow soldiers, they discovered that he smelled really bad. He was able to wash up after the Russians found them, but because of some miscommunication, the Russians never cleaned his uniform. Chester Personette returned to the Americans with a week-old reek.
THE ARMY gave Chester Personette an honorable discharge, but with the war continuing, he re-enlisted. He was sent to Japan, and Mary Personette went with him. He continued to serve abroad through the Korean War, and came back stateside in 1958.
When Chester Personette was posted to work at the Pentagon, they settled in Vienna, where they lived until 1979. They kept busy raising their three boys and one girl.
"I knew how I felt toward our children," said Mary Personette about mothering, despite losing her mother at a young age. "Something would just sort of tell you, you don't do it this way, you do it that way."
In 1979, they moved to St. Mary's County, Md., where Chester Personette could be closer to his hobby of sailing. Mary Personette became his first mate, after she overcame her dislike of sailing. They named their second fishing boat "The Two Belles," after their two grandmothers, who both had "belle" in their names.
Last year, the couple moved to the Fairfax Nursing Home, where they currently live.
"We love each other a lot. We put our love first above everything. Love and laughter. You can laugh together, not necessarily big jokes, but just smile together," Mary Personette said.
TO CELEBRATE all their years together, the family decided a renewal of their vows would honor the couple. A nurse made the wedding cake and let Mary Personette borrow a wedding dress. Mary wore a wedding dress for the first time; when they were first married, she couldn't afford a dress.
The music included "Only Forever," which was their song.
"I thought I was smiling, but I was scared to death," said Mary Personette of her nervousness during the ceremony. "I felt, I've got to be gorgeous in this gown."
After the ceremony, as the two sat together in the nursing home's solarium last Thursday, Mary Personette sang a couple of lines of a song to her husband:
"Darling, I am growing old,
Silver threads among the gold
Shine upon my brow today;
Life is fading fast away;
But, my darling, you will be
Always young and fair to me."
Chester Personette smiled. Although his memory has been fading, he would never forget the years with his wife.
"Well, we made it this far," he said.
"We made it this far together," said Mary Personette.
"We certainly did," Chester Personette said.