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Solomons couple wins longest marriage project, looks forward to 74th year

By MEGHAN RUSSELLStaff writer

Joseph Sheleheda still remembers what his wife, Stella, wore when they first met in 1937.

“She had on a polka dot dress,” he said. A year later, on June 18, 1938, they married.

This week, more than 73 years later, looking at their mantlepiece wedding photo at their Solomons Landing home, he said, “She hasn’t changed.”

Joseph, 96, and Stella, 94, recently won the Worldwide Marriage Encounter’s “Longest Married Couple” project for the state of Maryland. The international, faith-based organization holds weekend programs for couples to work on strengthening their marriages and conducts an annual search to find the longest married couple in the U.S., according to the WWME website.

Dot Stein, who presents the program in the Washington, D.C., area, said the organization advertises the longest marriage project in various ways, and the Shelehedas saw the ad in their church bulletin at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church. While they may not have won the longest married couple in the U.S. — that title went to a Las Vegas couple whose marriage spans 78 years — the Shelehedas won the top spot in Maryland, and last weekend Stein presented them with the honor at their church.

“They are such a cute couple,” Stein said, adding that they reflect the reason behind the project. “Given today’s culture when people give up too easily on marriages, people need to see marriages really can last a lifetime.”

“They’re looked up to as an example by their kids, and they celebrate their anniversaries as they come, in our church,” said their son, Bill Sheleheda, who lives in Calvert County with his wife, Dot. “It tends to be an event everybody looks forward to,” including bank clerks and store employees who always ask how his parents are doing. “They got to be neighbors with people in this area.”

But the Shelehedas didn’t always live locally. Joseph grew up in Slickville, Pa., and Stella in Cadogan, Pa., both the children of immigrant coal miners from the Ukraine and Poland. They met in their early 20s at St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Ambridge, where they sang together in the choir.

“My mother was after her to ask me to go on a picnic,” Joseph said. “She said yes. From then on, it was steady.”

Joseph proposed to her with a dozen roses on Christmas Eve, “and to this day on Christmas Eve she still gets a dozen roses,” Dot said.

But things weren’t always rosy. Joseph was shot once during a bank robbery, and he “almost lost” Stella after she was in a car wreck in the ‘60s, he said. Then he underwent heart surgery in the ‘70s and she had a triple bypass at the age of 90. But both are still kicking, walking around and holding hands every chance they get.

Joseph said they also experienced money troubles. In the early years, they barely afforded the bills, and he had to borrow money for their $50 wedding, which ended up lasting from 10 in the morning until 10 at night, featuring an orchestra and dancing.

“We had the most beautiful wedding anyone could ask for,” he said.

“And ever since then, we’re together, right?” Stella asked, taking his hand where they sat on their living room couch.

“Right,” he smiled.

On their honeymoon, the Shelehedas rented an out-of-season cabin in Erie, Pa., for $9 a week.

Stella said she still remembers how “spooky” it was.

“It was so windy and creaking, they cuddled together, and there was a light bulb with a string; he tied the string to his toe so he could flick the light on,” Bill laughed.

“But somehow we managed,” Stella said.

Joseph was a store manager, and Stella worked as a private cook and child caretaker. Joseph later left the store to work 38 years as a dye repairman and machinist, before Bill and Dot invited them to live in Calvert, where they threw the couple a surprise 65th anniversary party in which the Shelehedas were surprised by many of the people they grew up with in Pennsylvania and their son, Joseph, who flew in from Las Vegas.

“I was talking to him on the phone, I thought he was in Vegas,” Joseph said, recalling when his son walked in the door.

The Shelehedas said they love each of their children. Along with Bill and Joseph, they have a daughter, Stella Marie, who lives in Chicago; their third son, James, died in 1991. They also have six grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

“I think we were blessed, that’s all,” Joseph said.

He wrote two books of memoirs and recently started a third, and about 40 photo albums span an entire bookcase, and part of another, in their home.

When asked to share their secrets for a long, happy marriage, Joseph said, “If you have an argument, quit it right then and there, give her a kiss and go to sleep. The next day it’s as if nothing happened. We always kiss before we go to sleep.”

“We get along real good,” Stella said. “We haven’t had an argument in ages.”

mrussell@somdnews.com