DENVER – Valentine’s Day is an annual celebration of love and romance, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a couple in the community that better exemplifies the reason for the season than Walter and Sybil Johnson, who celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary Friday, Feb. 1.
Walter, 95, is a U.S. Navy veteran who fought in World War II during his service from 1943-46, shooting down Japanese planes while stationed on a battleship in the Pacific.
“I always wondered why kamikaze pilots wore helmets,” he said, with a laugh.
Upon returning to his Asheville home following the war, Walter joined a friend of his on a trip hitch-hiking across the country that he had just spent the past three years risking his life to protect.
“It was right after the end of the war, and it was easy to get a ride in your uniform back then,” he explained.
Walter and his friend navigated their way to Dallas, and that’s where he first laid eyes upon Sybil, who was standing outside the United Service Organization club with her friend, Mary, on the night of Dec. 15, 1945. Sybil, 94, who was born and raised in Emory, Texas, was working for a telephone company in Dallas at the time.
“We walked up to Sybil and her friend and asked them what time it was even though there was a clock right there,” he said. “Sybil and I went out on that Saturday night, and then again on Sunday night.”
Despite hitting it off, Walter left Texas soon after to return to Asheville, but he and Sybil continued to correspond throughout the following month despite the distance. Through their conversations, the two quickly realized they enjoyed similar interests and started to develop feelings for one another, and so they decided to wed when Walter returned to Dallas just a few weeks later.
Walter and Sybil were married on Feb. 1, 1946, at the Dallas County Records Building, where Jack Ruby was tried for murdering Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated President John F. Kennedy, 18 years later. In fact, the Johnsons were married by Judge Joe Brown, who presided over Ruby’s trial in 1964.
“I had always told myself growing up that I was only going to get married the one time, and now here we are 73 years later,” Sybil Johnson said.
“I went back to Dallas and somebody asked us if we wanted to get married, so we both said ‘why not?’” Walter Johnson added. “We were married right then and there, and then we went out and sat down on a bench outside the bus station with nowhere to go, nothing to do and no plans whatsoever.”
From there, the Johnsons returned to Sybil’s home in Emery before eventually relocating to Dallas permanently. They soon followed Walter’s twin brother to Washington, D.C. before ultimately settling in the Charlotte region.
“My twin brother was in the Marine Corps and I was in the Navy, so we were separated most of the time during the war,” Walter Johnson said. “We were close so we wanted to live close, and we were together until he passed away nine years ago.”
The Johnsons agree that one of the keys to making a marriage stand the test of time is pursuing similar interests, so the couple never missed a chance share their passion for traveling, including a trip around the country in a camper. Walter and Sybil have also made it a point to stay active over the years, taking up golf and bowling in their leisure time since retiring.
“Fortunately, both of us like pretty much the same things,” Sybil Johnson said. “We love to travel, so we’ve done a lot of that over the years, taking our camper to various campgrounds. The longest trip that we took lasted six weeks in the camper. We started here in North Carolina and went out west, and when we made it to my brother’s house in Dallas, he said one of our wheels would have fallen off if we had gone two more miles. We’ve been to 49 states over the years, all but Alaska.”
The Johnsons have made a great deal of memories on their ventures around the country, but their travels have also produced some scares, including a trip down the mountain from Asheville when Sybil would have to crack the passenger side door to let Walter know where the edge of the road was because they couldn’t see while driving through tunnels without lights on their car.
“One time we were driving somewhere and we came to the end of a road with no detour, but we decided to make our own detour,” she said. “We went driving through farmers’ fields and whatever else might have been out there before we finally made it back to the road.”
While shared interests have helped bring the Johnsons closer, a marriage doesn’t last 73 years without genuine love and respect for one another, which is something that’s never been a problem for Walter and Sybil.
“I guess we’ve just always liked each other because the groups of young people that we used to run around with were always amazed that Sybil and I never argued,” Walter Johnson said.
“My uncle told us once that, to keep from arguing, when one says something to pick a fight, the other one should just be quiet, so we don’t have arguments and we really never have,” Sybil Johnson added, with a laugh. “He still kisses me every night before we go to bed, and has ever since we got married.”
The Johnsons have two children, Rick Johnson and Lee Ann Miller, as well as four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Perhaps even more astounding than their 73 years of marriage is the fact that no one in their family has ever been divorced.
“Their life has always just been very peaceful,” Miller said of her parents. “They deal with things as they come rather than stressing out about things that are out of their control. They just handle things together.”