As she got into bed on July 11, 2020, Rosa Hoell found a note on her pillow. On it, her husband, Henry, had written, “You will be my sweetheart forever.”
His sentiment is as real as it is romantic. Today, the two celebrate their 80th wedding anniversary.
At a time when the nation’s average life expectancy hovers around 78 years, eight decades of marriage is a milestone few people achieve. Those couples who reach it have often passed the century mark in age.
At 96 and 95, Henry and Rosa are the exception. To call them childhood sweethearts would not begin to tell the story of their love of a lifetime.
Rosa was 15 and Henry 16 when they wed April 28, 1941, in Dillon, S.C.
“His mother said we were mighty young,” Rosa recalled quietly as the two sat side by side last week on a love seat in the living room of their Greenville home.
Henry, who turned 16 five days before they married, was pedaling his bicycle the day he asked Rosa’s father for her hand.
“I rode up beside him and jumped off my bicycle. I said, ‘Can Rosa and I be married?’” Henry said, incredulously. “You know what he said? No!”
But the Martin County farm boy was undeterred. He spent $8, his entire savings at the time, on a dress for his bride, having long since decided that Rosa was the only girl for him.
Still, he may not have realized that on the day they met. Rosa was 7 and Henry was 8 when he went with his parents to a nearby farm his father was tending. He and Rosa played together while her mother washed clothes.
Although the two didn’t know it at the time, they shared a lifelong connection. They were born eight months apart in the same farmhouse.
“My dad moved out (of a home on his grandmother’s farm) when he sold the crop,” Henry explained, “and then her dad moved into the house and tended the land when she was born.”
Riding the bus together to Bear Grass School, Henry and Rosa learned they had more in common than a birthplace. They both were born into families that farmed, and both were the oldest in their families. Both loved to play checkers (Rosa usually won), but, more than that, they loved each other.
“The back of the school bus on the left hand side, that was Henry and Rosa’s seat. Everybody knew that,” Henry said, laughing. “We’d sit there and hold hands.”
At school, Henry would pretend to need a drink of water just to walk down the hall and try to catch a glimpse of Rosa, who was in the grade behind his.
“The glass in the room that she was in, you couldn’t see through it except one pane had been broken out,” he said. “If somebody in the room saw me they’d whisper to Rosa, ‘He’s out there,’ and I’d wave at her and she’d wave back at me.”
Unable to persuade Rosa’s father and mother to let her get married, a love-struck Henry turned to his parents for help.
“They’d go to bed and I’d sit out on the porch and swing (and say) ‘I’m so broken-hearted. I can’t get married,’” Henry said. “One night, my mama came out there, and she said, ‘Your daddy will take you to South Carolina.’”
Questions about where and even how they would live took a back seat to finding a justice of the peace who could declare their love for one another to be lawful.
“We didn’t have enough brains to worry,” Henry said, laughing.
The newlyweds lived with their parents for a short time before setting out on their own. Although neither finished high school, Henry, who went on to get his GED at age 38, was able to get a job to support himself and his bride, earning $1 a day at a sawmill.
“He let us live in the house free,” Henry said of his first employer. “He didn’t ever pay me, but he had an account at a grocery store, and I’d go in and buy groceries.”
He later worked full-time at the sawmill and picked up a side job on a farm to feed his growing family. By the time Henry was called to serve his country in World War II, the Hoells had a daughter and a son, the first of their four children.
The Hoells’ oldest, Jean Gore, recalls how, due to their smaller-than-usual age gap, people sometimes thought she and her dad were husband and wife rather than father and daughter. But despite their youth, the Hoells were good parents.
“They were always there for every single one of us,” Gore said. “They were involved with us constantly with our schoolwork, with activities we were in; they were very supportive and were right there with us.”
Although neither Henry nor Rosa attended college, they made sure their son and three daughters had that chance. Through the years, they regularly opened their home to provide East Carolina students attending their church with home-cooked meals.
“They’ve always loved people,” Gore said. “They have never had a great deal of money, but what they had and what they have they share.”
The Hoells, who celebrated their anniversary on Saturday with a small gathering of family and friends, are happy to share their secret for marital success to anyone who is interested.
“Just always listen,” Rosa said. “And when you’ve got something to say, say it. But you don’t get mad about it.”
Henry agreed, recalling only one argument in nearly 30,000 days of marriage.
“We have never fussed,” he said. “We disagree. If you disagree on something, talk it over. Don’t pout or anything like that.”
While their life together has been nearly free from argument, it has not been without heartache. The Hoells grieved together over the loss of their youngest daughter, who died at age 21. Rosa has battled colon cancer, and Henry has suffered a heart attack.
While Gore was still in high school, her father was electrocuted while working on a power line. His heart stopped, he fell 30 feet and was pronounced dead. But in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, he started to breathe again.
“God is so good,” Henry said, recalling the emotions of decades gone by. “I had four children that had to go to school. I had a wife that had to be taken care of.”
More than 60 years later, he has lived long enough to have four grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren and to continue to care for his wife.
“I always hold her hand,” he said. “I always go open the car door for her.”
In the last year, togetherness forced by the coronavirus pandemic has put many marriages to the test. But for the Hoells, little has changed.
“We sit on this sofa now, at least four hours a day holding hands,” Henry said. “She gets a love note every night.”
When Henry turns down the covers before bedtime, he leaves a note on Rosa’s pillow. It is a practice he started some years ago, though he cannot recall exactly when. Rosa has kept every one, filling boxes with sticky-note-size papers that testify to her husband’s enduring affection.
“Rosa, you are the joy of my life. I love you more each day,” one reads. Another simply says: “Just a little note to tell you how much I love you.”
“They say the same thing,” Henry said. “You don’t have to say much. All you have to do is say I love you.”