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To Have and To Hold for 75 Years

Opposites Attract

In a tiny town in Southwest Oklahoma you can find a little white house on the corner of South 13th Street. There live JM and Billie Cope, cherished members of the community of Frederick, OK. They are my father’s parents—the only grandparents I have ever really known. You may find JM rocking on the porch swing when the weather is right and Billie inside the house setting up their next meal. They have spent nearly their entire marriage in that house, raising two boys into men and celebrating every milestone a family creates. The happy times of birthdays, graduations, and grandkid sleepovers, along with the difficult seasons like sending a son off to war and mending each other’s health through the years have all been endured within the walls of that two-bedroom house. In March 2022, JM and Billie reached a particularly special milestone, 75 years of marriage. Now, nearing the end of their lives, I spent some time asking them to reflect on how they made it this long. This is their story.

“Do you remember how you met?” I asked them both. My grandfather, JM, piped up with a quick “No, not really,” while the sweet voice of my grandmother, Billie, questions him, “You don’t?” followed by her signature laugh. Well, she remembers. In those days—the 1940s—on Sunday afternoons, friends would get together with the one who had a car and go for a ride through town. On this Sunday, Billie rode along with a group of young men and began playing matchmaker to get them dates with the girls she knew. That’s how she met JM. At first, she set him up on a date with her cousin, but soon he would give her a call to ask her out on a date. She agreed, and the two went to a movie and took a ride through town. From then on, they were a couple.

JM had been raised, along with his siblings, by a single mother in the neighboring town of Manitou. His father passed away when he was 11. So, as the oldest son, he went to work, always thinking of ways to help his mother. Billie had been raised by her mother and grandparents in her younger years, until her stepfather came into her life. Still, her grandparents played a key role in her upbringing, and as she says, spoiled her by giving her anything she ever wanted. For that era, JM and Billie would be considered opposites by some, but as the old adage goes: opposites attract!

Covenants Made

With WWII ongoing, JM graduated from high school in 1944, joined the Army and was deployed overseas, where he would earn a Purple Heart. Billie remained home to finish school and began working at the local telephone office. With modern technology, it’s hard to think about how calls were connected via switchboard and waiting on the operator to connect you to the right phone line, but there was Billie connecting calls all over the area. One night in November 1946, JM called home from San Antonio, Texas, to let his family know that he was returning home from the service. Surprised to hear Billie’s voice on the line, he recalls, “I didn’t know why I could hear her talking to me.” The night JM was set to return to Frederick, Billie had her mother take her to the bus station to wait. The last bus was to arrive at 10 p.m. The bus came and unloaded, but JM wasn’t there. A small defeat. Word came that another bus would be arriving soon, so she waited. The next one came and the two were reunited, never to be separated again.

A few months later, on March 22, 1947, they would be united in marriage in her grandparents’ home in Frederick. JM had been raised in the Baptist church and Billie in the Methodist Church. They both admit that talking about their faith was not discussed as much as it could have been in the beginning of their relationship. Billie says that within a month of being married and attending her new church, she felt God stirring her spirit. Something inside her needed to be different, and one particular Sunday, she felt the call to walk down the aisle during the invitation, and JM walked down right behind her in support. That Sunday, Billie gave her life to Jesus, and they joined the First Baptist Church of Frederick as a couple.

Work and Fun

I jokingly asked, “Grandmother, did you know how to cook when you got married?” Lighting up the room with her grin, she motioned with her hand, “I had a cookbook!” She recounted how she studied the cookbook and was proud when the recipes turned out well. She says she prefers baking to cooking. For JM, he doesn’t have a favorite meal grandmother makes—they’re all good in his mind. I watch him say those words with subtle appreciation for his bride.

Within two years, their first son, Johnny (my dad) was born and several years later twins, Joey and Jackie. JM decided it was time to embark on his own business and opened a dry cleaners in the neighboring town of Snyder, OK. From 1962 to 2002, he owned and operated Cope’s Cleaners. Billie worked for the local water and light office until her retirement in 1992. She tells me how the day after retiring, JM walked into their bedroom to say, “Get up, you’re going to work with me.” She wasn’t too keen on the idea at first and said no, but he insisted. For the next twenty years, she would go to work with him every day—another chapter in their book of supporting and being devoted to each other.

As they raised their boys, JM always made sure the family took yearly vacations and had a nice Christmas, even when times were tough. At every place they visited, they took a tour of the city. Billie says that sometimes her mind worried about spending money on leisure, but now she realizes how much the memories made during those trips meant to her sons and admits she appreciated the vacations more than JM ever knew.

The Glue

My grandmother has often said she admires my grandfather’s character. She even tears up saying that word. “He’s the most honest person I’ve ever known” is her favorite thing to say about him. Asking JM his favorite thing about Billie, he laughs, “Her gray hair—everyone tells her it’s beautiful, even strangers on the street.”

So, what’s the secret to being married for 75 years? Through our talks, the answer always came back to commitment and prayer. Grandmother says that in the early stage, she didn’t realize how long it would take to blend the lives of two people. She expected that JM would be or do what she wanted of him and had not anticipated that this idea was not the way things worked between two people. JM amusingly chimes in with a story of the night Billie tried to leave him. She marched out the door to the car and then couldn’t get the car door unlocked. Defeated, angry, and frustrated, she came back to the house, only to find JM laughing hysterically. She adds, “He always laughed during times of adversity.” Both of them say that in the era in which they got married, you were dedicated to the commitment you made before the Lord. In simpler terms, “you got married and you stayed married,” JM says. Billie says abundant amounts of prayer helped too. In her heart, when times were difficult, Billie says she could not think about going on in her life without JM, and that helped her through the challenging seasons.

I asked again, thinking there was more to know about the secret to long-lasting love. Billie’s answer: “perseverance,” and JM’s answer, “I just loved her.” If they had advice to impart to others embarking on their new journey of love together, grandmother says you must be willing to have the tough conversations—even when it’s not pleasant, they are necessary. Grandfather adds that finding a church home where you can grow together in Christian teaching instead of sailing along in life fulfilling your own desires is important too.

Stories that Make Us Smile

I wish I could tell you every detail of what makes my grandparents special to our family. The stories of their lives are as precious as gold, each chapter as unique as they are. There are good, good memories of how JM played Santa Claus for over 30 years, bringing joy to thousands of children all over our region in countless appearances, and Billie right there every time ready to hot curl his long white beard and help him into the suit. There are the scooter years, when JM took up motor scooter riding, and Billie joined him by learning to ride a bike of her very own.

And there’s the story of our family’s dearest heirloom known simply as Old Blue, a 1966 Plymouth Valiant Wagon that my grandparents loved and couldn’t part with. Old Blue was the family and business car that carried loads of dry cleaning to and from my grandfather’s shop until it ended up in the back garage collecting dust for decades. Then in 2016, my brother took Old Blue off to try and restore her glory days—not an easy task. One weekend when our family gathered for an anniversary celebration at the lake, Old Blue was also there to make her surprise renewed appearance debut. As the garage doors rolled up, we watched the awe in my grandparents’ eyes as they admired the beauty of their dear Old Blue and remembered her faithfulness throughout the years.

Covenants Kept

JM and Billie’s devotion to faith and marriage has given favor to their four living generations thereafter, and those blessings cannot be measured. We simply revel in the time we have been given and praise the Lord for granting us the gift of JM and Billie Cope.

Judith, the oldest granddaughter of JM and Billie Cope, lives in Edmond, Oklahoma. For 15 years she worked in program development and outreach for social services programs within the OKC metro, until leaving in 2020 to be a stay-at-home mother to her daughter, Allison. Judith has also spent the last decade as a foster parent. She says the foster care experience has deeply marked her life for the better, and she continues to support relationships with the children and their families that have come through her home.

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To reuse online, please credit Challenger, Jan-Mar 2023. CCMUSA.