Tom and Mary Lou Sell credit mutual respect, trust and open communication as important components of their marriage. But it doesn't take long to see that laughter plays a big part in their relationship as well.
They met in 1959 at a dance when both were attending Seattle University. “I was a freshman, Tom was a junior,” Mary Lou recalled.
From the start, they began forging a future together. Tom asked Mary Lou for a Saturday night, but their first date actually took place the night before that Saturday when Mary Lou asked Tom to be her date at a Tolo (girl-asks-boy) dance.
Was it love at first sight? “I don't know,” said Tom, then he quipped: “I fell in love when she told me I was supposed to.” Mary Lou laughed, then agreed when Tom added, “She obviously knew first,” he said, turning to her, “didn't you?”
They were married June 10, 1961, at Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle and celebrated their golden anniversary in June 2011.
Is there a secret to staying married for 50 years?
“I listen to her,” Tom said. “But he doesn't say 'yes, ma'am',” Mary Lou laughed.
“We have mutual respect, and you need to have understanding of each other. Along with these two things comes complete honesty,” Tom said.
“Did you say good communication?” Mary Lou asked. “You have to listen to each other.”
What happens with disagreements?
“First of all, we have a lot of discussions,” Tom said with a smile; “I discuss and she listens.”
“I can't remember the last disagreement we had,” Mary Lou added.
Tom quipped, “Oh, we have all kinds of disagreements; I just give in before you know it.”
After the couple married in 1961, they moved to Raymond for Tom's first job as a 6th grade teacher at the 9th Street Elementary School. They soon moved into their house on Ballentine Street where they have lived since, bringing up four children – Jeanette, John, Jacquie and Joe.
Tom's job changed in 1965 when he started the Special Education program in the South Bend schools. He moved to Bay Center Elementary in 1972, then back to South Bend in 1976, staying there until he retired in 1998. He coached for 39 years, beginning with junior high basketball, football and track in 1967, and extending his coaching career past retirement with track until he “gave up the whistle” in 2006, as son John put it at their 50th anniversary.
Mary Lou covered the home front until son Joe was in the third grade. In 1976, she went to work as a reading specialist, then in the early '90s served as secretary at Riverview Elementary, just two doors from home. She moved back to 9th Street as secretary before retiring in 2005.
As a couple, they share several mutual interests: St. Lawrence Church in Raymond, their RV camping club and playing cards. “We used to like to dance,” Mary Lou added. “We danced a lot when we were young.”
“I used to take you home and go back to dance,” Tom recalled. “Some people thought we were having trouble, but if we were having trouble I wouldn't have gone back to town.
“All our interests aren't the same and I think that's OK, as long as we have a few things together,” Tom said. “Some couples do everything together, but we need space.”
“Space” for Mary Lou includes water aerobics several times a week, quilting and reading. For Tom, “I just kind of wander around and talk to people,” he said. He plays cribbage with neighbor Les and goes to yoga several times a week when he can, “because I need to,” he said; “that doesn't mean I like to.” He's also a sports fan: “I'm a fan of sports but not of teams.”
One of their favorite activities is cruising. Their next trip will take them to Tahiti where they will cruise the islands.
Their enjoyment in life is obvious and comes with their good relationship. For several years, they provided pre-marital counseling to young couples through their church. Their advice to them?
“Communication. Talk to each other. Don't go to bed mad, because it keeps festering,” said Mary Lou. “Make time for yourself and time for each other, especially if you have young kids. You need a date night, when just the two of you get together and talk and be without kids and re-connect.”
“Kids change everything (in a marriage),” Tom said, “but not for the worse, for the better. It's just different. But you have to have the same values; if you don't, you might as well forget it.”
Are things 50/50 in their marriage?
“No, no, no, no,” Tom said. “You each have your domain. Some will be 60/40 or some nearly all, but never without discussion.”
In their household, Mary Lou takes care of the money. Early in their marriage, Tom said he asked Mary Lou, “are you worried about money?” She admitted she was. “OK, you worry about it and I won't have to,” he said. “But you can't do that unless you have complete trust in each other. If you have complete trust, you can give responsibilities to each other.”
What about the high divorce rate in the country?
“First of all, a lot of people go into marriage with the idea that if it doesn't work out we'll just divorce,” Tom said. “The second thing is they have unreasonable expectations about what marriage is.
“If someone is one way now, they're not going to be something different in six months. They are not going to change unless they want to change.
“Marriage is not paradise,” he said, “although for some people it's supposed to be. It takes work.”
A touch of laughter doesn't hurt, either. And there's plenty of it in the Sell household.