It didn’t take long for Betty to fall for Ben.
“Six foot two and eyes of blue,” she said, describing her first swooning impression of the young man.
It was all about vision for Ben as well: “I couldn’t take my eyes off her.”
This Saturday, Ben and Betty Jones will be looking into each other’s eyes as they celebrate their 70th Valentine’s Day as husband and wife.
The seven decades, and counting, love story was born when America was lining up to see Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca”; humming along to the Andrews Sisters, “Don’t Fence Me In”; an average cost of a new house was $3,450; a good salary was about $2,400; and a gallon of gas would run you 15 cents.
But 1944 was also a time of terrible uncertainty with America at war. Most young men were in uniform and everyone knew many wouldn’t be coming home.
Betty was enrolled at the University of Idaho in the small town of Orofino, when one day she and some sorority sisters went to the movies. They came out of the theater to find a group of soldiers standing out front who were eager to chat up the girls. Half an hour later, back at their sorority house, they looked out the window and there was the group of young soldiers. They invited them in and one of the soldiers “played the piano beautifully,” Betty remembered, as they passed the afternoon singing songs.
The tall, blue-eyed Ben Jones was in Orofino on Army orders, studying engineering, before being deployed to Europe. Not wasting any time, Ben called her for a date that night for the next day. She thought he was “a handsome man. Nice and fun to be around.”
When asked how old she was, Betty answered, “Old enough.” He proved again he wasn’t one to waste time, when less than two months after that afternoon sing-along, he asked her to marry him. “Time was of the essence,” Ben said. They planned a Christmas wedding in Betty’s hometown, but the war got in the way of scheduling.
Ben’s infantry unit was stationed at Fort Benning, near Columbus, Georgia. “We were on high alert, ready to be shipped overseas,” he remembered. His unit was locked down, with no one cleared to leave the area.
Ben asked his lieutenant for permission to get married, who then ran the request up the chain of command. “I never expected they’d say ‘yes,’ but they gave us a four-day pass and we jumped on it,” Ben said.
The families quickly mobilized for the wedding. The bride and her mother and the groom’s mother traveled overnight by train to Georgia from opposite ends of the country — from Idaho and New Jersey, to get to the church on time. “It really was quite an adventure to get them all together,” Ben said.
On October 14, 1944, a wedding party of two mothers, one matron of honor, one best man, a chaplain and 50 soldiers witnessed Ben and Betty’s nuptials. Ben laughed at the memory. “Twenty of [the soldiers] I was very close to,” he said. “We’d gone through training together. The other 30 — I turned out to have so many best friends. Everybody wanted to come.”
Soon after, Ben shipped out to Europe as Allied troops were advancing on Germany. “We didn’t know what would happen,” he said. Betty returned to Idaho and college “and waited.” It would be two years before they would lay eyes on each other. Back from the war and reunited, Ben and Betty drove cross country to New Jersey.
Betty’s mother put them in touch with an old friend who thought Ben “would make a good insurance person.” He started selling insurance door to door as a sales trainee for Monarch Insurance Company in Maplewood, New Jersey. Their son, Doug, was born in 1949. Daughters Susan and Nancy followed as the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio and then Somers, Connecticut.
The prediction that Ben would make a good insurance person was dead on; he eventually was named president and chairman of the board of Monarch Insurance.
Shelter Island was a summer and vacation destination until they moved to the Island full time in 1986.
While Ben was still at Monarch, he was asked at a party if any of their grown children would be interested in volunteering for the ambulance corps. Both he and Betty trained together and became certified emergency medical technicians. Ben still answers call as an EMT here and in their winter home in Stuart, Florida. Betty had to stop because of a hearing loss that caused her to miss too much of what was happening, she said.
Secrets to a long and happy marriage?
Always reconcile after an argument, Betty said, adding, “There’s a lot of laughter in our marriage.” Ben agreed: “Communication and laughter.”
He mentioned a sign that hangs on their wall: “‘Always kiss me good night.’ In other words, don’t go to bed angry.”
Keeping the virtue of loyalty alive is essential, Ben said. “You have to stick together as a family, have respect for that person and understand that they have valid issues that are important to them,” he added. “It’s a partnership you’ve got to live up to. A real give and take. Compromise all the way. If you can’t compromise, the stress of living is too much.”
Ben spoke of how Al Roker on the Today Show used to mention couples who were celebrating landmark anniversaries. “I’d hear him say 50, 60 years,” he said. “It may as well have been 100. I never thought we’d get here.”
They celebrated their anniversary last October with a party at La Maison Blanche, with the entire family in attendance, including their son, daughters, five granddaughters and two great-grandchildren, a girl and a boy.
This still very romantic duo will celebrate Valentine’s Day in Florida at a pool party and then see a play.
“We’re both still active,” Ben said. “We play golf together. We’re still independent. We’ve been lucky beyond belief.” A example of the fun in their marriage came when Betty was asked about the first present Ben gave her. “Oh my goodness, that was a long time ago, I can’t remember,” she answered, then asked Ben.
“A kiss,” he said.
Another memorable gift he gave her was “a gold necklace with a diamond in the center that I have worn almost every day since. It’s not ostentatious, something I feel comfortable wearing every day and I’ve received so many compliments on it.”
The best gift Betty gave him turns out not to be a material thing at all. Ben described how his business took him away for many nights and weekends, keeping him away from family.
Even now, his work on the ambulance can sometimes interfere with family life. “It was up to her to hold it together,” Ben said about his bride. “Her understanding and patience is a huge gift.”