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A Special Date on Valentine’s Day

Old Country Buffet hosts experienced sweethearts.

For the last eight years, Kelly Greenwood has spent Valentine’s Day looking at marriage certificates, sometimes hundreds, all dated before 1957. Some certificates are European, the result of American G.I.s marrying their sweethearts. Others, she is often told, were stamped a day or so before a soldier was shipped overseas, or a day or so after he came back.

For Greenwood, who leads public outreach for the Old Country Buffet on Richmond Highway, Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to witness the fidelity of a generation that she believes will never be duplicated. “They knew how to work together to keep a marriage together, to keep a family together,” she said. “They worked at it.”

Since it opened 10 years ago, Old Country Buffet has celebrated Valentine’s Day by offering free meals to couples married 50 years or longer. Mary and Jerome “J.J.” Stegall have come every year, and not just on Valentine’s Day. The couple (married 51 years) said they have come to the restaurant every day since it opened. “Other than the days I was in the hospital,” was Mary Stegall’s only caveat.

The couple said they are so loyal to the restaurant because they know the staff and many of the other customers. “We’re just near about a family,” J.J. Stegall said. When his wife had to stay in the hospital, he kept coming in to eat. During that time, Mary Stegall said, “they wouldn’t take a penny from him.” While she professed a passion for the green beans, her husband said his favorites were more general: chicken and vegetables. “Because I’m an old country boy and I like my vegetables.”

Last year, the couple celebrated their fiftieth anniversary at the restaurant. Greenwood arranged a cake for them. Asked how they stayed together for so long, they couldn’t offer any tricks. “We don’t have no problems,” Mary Stegall said. “When he gets too smart, I just knock him down.”

AT ANOTHER TABLE, the Yawornicky brothers were celebrating Valentine’s Day with a double date. Ted Yawornicky married Trudy on Dec. 3, 1955. John Yawornicky married Marie two weeks later, on Dec. 17.

John Yawornicky offered this piece of advice to married couples aspiring to qualify for a free meal on Valentine’s Day, “If you have an argument, you settle it before you go to bed.”

His brother, who seemed slightly at a loss to explain his success, suggested that “true love,” had kept them together. His wife Marie was ready with another answer, “I tell him what to do and he does it.”

Greenwood said that until last year, OCB offered free dinner as well as lunch on Valentine’s Day. They used to have 500 people for dinner. One couple had been married 72 years. They would come in with their son and his wife, who also qualified for the free meal. Greenwood recalled another couple who’d gotten married on Valentine’s Day. This year they’ll be celebrating their 61st anniversary. “It’s the World War II generation. They did something right back then. I wish we could learn from them.”

Greenwood said she doesn’t think marriages today will have the same staying power. Changes in culture mean people are less inclined to do the hard work necessary to hold a marriage together for the long term. And she sees the number of people who can teach those lessons dwindling. Several times, a spouse has died shortly after Valentine’s Day. The picture Greenwood took of those couples when they came for their meal would be the last one of them together.

FRANK AND MARIAM WOODWARD needed to push three tables together for their Valentine’s day date. They celebrated with two of their sons, one daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. On Feb. 25, they will have been married 53 years.

Frank Woodward was trying to recall the Valentine’s Day they celebrated 11 days before their marriage. “I probably didn’t even think about it,” he said.

His wife’s memory was better. “He gave me a watch,” she piped up. “I’ve still got that watch.”

When Frank Woodward was asked whether he’d taken Mariam out to dinner to present the gift, daughter-in-law Vicki Woodward spoke up, “He took her across the state line!”

Earlier in the conversation, Mariam had revealed the details of their wedding. She was only a sophomore at Mount Vernon High School in 1954. Her mother wanted her to get her degree. But on that fateful Feb. 25, the young couple had hatched a plan. Frank followed behind Mariam’s school bus in his car, and after she was dropped off he swooped in and picked her up. They stopped to pick up a co-conspirator, Frank’s mother, then drove through Alexandria, crossed the 14th Street Bridge and traveled all the way up to Elkton, Maryland, where paperwork requirements were lax. They were married by a justice of the peace.

“Oh, my mom was mad,” Mariam Woodward recalled. The newlywed daughter did not return home for weeks until she cooled off. Woodward never finished high school. She was too busy raising her family, she said as she looked around the table with satisfaction.

Asked how she and her husband had managed to stay together so long, Woodward hesitated a moment. “Oh my God,” she finally said, “I guess it would be love.”