Column: Celebrating 76 years of marriage

They were married in a small ceremony in New Jersey. The groom, a 25-year-old dentist, and the bride, a 24-year-old nurse, had met just a year earlier, quickly fell in love and were joined together as a couple on an early August day before a small gathering of friends and family.

Irv Pitman wore his Army uniform and his wife, Sue, wore a knee-length white dress. It was nothing fancy, an “everyday” dress, but even after all these years Irv reflects on it fondly, with boyish enthusiasm.

“She was in a very cute dress,” he said.

They had no choice but to keep things simple: It was 1942, eight months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the United States was firmly entrenched in World War II. While Sue’s parents attended the wedding, most of her family still lived in Switzerland, so most of the guests were from Irv’s side.

The couple had met at Englewood Hospital in 1941. Irv was an intern training in dentistry and she was a nurse.

“It’s an Ernest Hemingway story,” said their son, John, 68.

It’s also a story that continues to this day. 

Last Friday, the couple celebrated their 76th wedding anniversary with dinner at Front Street Station in Greenport. It was a small gathering, much like their wedding all those years earlier.

Irv is now 101; his wife, 99. They live with John and his wife in Southold on the same land where Irv would visit as a child in the 1920s.

More than three-quarters of a century after exchanging vows, they held hands as they sat together to pose for a photo Friday. Irv remains in remarkable health for his age. He enjoys long walks to stay active and swims in Long Island Sound as his son watches over, a daily routine when the weather allows. Sue had also been “sharp as a tack,” her son said, until she suffered a stroke a little less than two years ago. The stroke diminished her cognitively; she struggles to remember things and to understand why she can’t do all the things she’s always done.

Irv and Sue had been living at Colonial Village in Southold until Sue’s stroke, after which they moved in with their son.

“We needed help to take care of her,” said Irv, who was once considered the baby as the youngest of three siblings.

Although he lived most of his life in New Jersey, Irv spent nearly every summer, aside from the war years, on the North Fork. It was “quite different” then, he recalled, describing a time before the use of tractors, when teams of horses roamed the vast farmlands. Potatoes, cauliflower and corn were the main crops, he said.

Although they arrived each summer from New Jersey, their neighbors on the North Fork always welcomed the family.

“We were greeted with open arms,” he said. “We had so many friends. We loved it and we were treated so well. It was all farmlands.”

Irv and Sue spent many years enjoying the water by boat, from motorboats to a sailboat. They both loved fishing. He remembered a time when the scallops were so abundant, he could simply walk into the water and scoop a bushel at any time. In the winters, they would travel to New Hampshire to cross country ski and use snowmobiles. Sue enjoyed those times immensely, Irv said. After all, she was Swiss.

Irv spent his career working as a dentist until he retired in 1982.

He had been completing an internship at the time the war started. The U.S. government took over the country’s medical and dental schools and all students enrolled were enlisted as cadets, Irv wrote in “Home for Christmas,” a memoir he published in 2015. After completing his internship, he was commissioned into the U.S. Army and told to report to Camp Lee, Va., on Sept. 7, 1942, which marked the beginning of his active duty serving in World War II.

He writes in the memoir about the time they were granted a surprise overnight away from camp. He hopped onto a train to New York City with an Army buddy, Manning, and they ended up at the bar of the Hotel New Yorker. Sue took a Long Island Rail Road train into the city to meet him and they spent their last night together, “after dealing with the problem of no rooms available that was finally settled in our favor,” Irv wrote.

The next day, Irv and Manning were on a ship looking back at their last view of the United States. Irv hoped to be home in time for Christmas. He was right, but it wasn’t until three years later. 

Looking ahead now, the Pitman family hopes to celebrate Sue’s 100th birthday Feb. 24, 2019. It’s been a challenge for Irv to see his wife struggle, unable to do all the things she’d always done. 

“I sure miss her in many ways,” he said, “but I’m living with her and sleeping with her. That keeps us together.”

Photo caption: Irv and Sue Pitman celebrated their 76th wedding anniversary last Friday at Front Street Station in Greenport. (Courtesy photo) 

The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].