To Alice Rockey — a sharp, funny and occasionally ornery 99-year-old Olathe woman — the secret to the success of her 81-year marriage to husband Dale comes down to one simple thing.
This week at the two-room assisted living apartment she and her 99-year-old husband share, she summed it up this way:
“I always let him have my way.”
And then she chuckled.
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For Alice and Dale Rockey, it’s been some kind of ride, a marriage so lengthy that it will be recognized Saturday by the California-based group Worldwide Marriage Encounter as part of the organization’s 2015 Longest Married Couple Project.
Although the award doesn’t claim to crown America’s unequivocal longest-married couple — the Rockeys are the longest out of the more than 375 nominations received by the organization nationally — few would argue that a marriage that has spanned eight decades, 13 presidents and a number of U.S. wars doesn’t warrant some sort of formal celebration.
“We’ve had a wonderful life,” Dale Rockey said.
To trace the origins of their union, you must go back — and back, and back, and back — to the early 1930s.
Alice Planansky and Dale Rockey grew up together in the small Nebraska town of Hemingford. They went to school together, lived just a couple of blocks from each other.
She was movie-star pretty, with brown, wavy hair and a sweet smile. He was thin and bushy-eyebrowed and, as Alice Rockey put it, “one of the handsomest guys in town.”
On the day that would forever change their lives, they were supposed to be going on an evening double-date — Alice with another boy, Dale with another girl.
But that afternoon, when the other girl was still at work, Dale Rockey pulled up in front of Alice’s house. She was sitting on the front porch.
“He came by and says, ‘You want to go for a ride?’” recalled Alice Rockey. “So we went for a ride, and that was our first date.”
And although the pair had a bit of explaining to do later that day — “We were in the doghouse,” she admitted — it was otherwise a marvelous decision.
On Dec. 29, 1933, they were married in Nebraska. The marriage license cost $2.
For a honeymoon, they took off for a few days in Hot Springs, S.D., where an aunt and uncle of Dale Rockey’s lived. When they returned, they moved into their first home — a two-room apartment — and settled into a typical Midwestern existence.
He worked in a garage that had been owned by his father, then for other Ford dealerships in the area. She worked as a typesetter for Iron Man magazine.
They had five kids, all boys.
They were very much in love, and to be sure, that sense of matrimonial harmony trickled down to the next generation: Of their five children, all are still married to their original spouses.
“That’s probably the good example set by our parents,” said Tom Rockey, 76, one of the sons.
Dale and Alice Rockey both retired in 1979, filling their newfound free time with travel and their ever-expanding collection of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and, later, great-great-grandchildren.
They traveled everywhere — Florida, Texas, “all the southern states,” as Dale Rockey put it. They traveled so much, in fact, that they were only home about five months out of the year.
Then, about a decade ago, it got to where Dale Rockey couldn’t take the trash out or mow the lawn on his own any longer, and so they moved down to Olathe, where Tom Rockey lived.
They lived with Tom and his wife until 2011, when they moved into an independent living facility. Then, last September, they moved into their current place, a two-room apartment not unlike the first home they shared nearly a century ago.
Today, they spend their days together, laughing and reminiscing.
They go to breakfast together, then return to their apartment and settle into their recliners. He reads the paper, she does her crosswords. They used to go to bingo on Sundays, but now they mostly pass the time in what Alice Rockey calls a “fancy-free” kind of way.
Those around them don’t express too much surprise at the couple’s longevity.
Tom Rockey says they’ve just always been so deeply in love. And Dick Baumbach, who along with wife Diane founded the longest-marriage project five years ago, says that most couples who have been honored aren’t quite sure what all the fuss is about.
In the past five years, the Baumbachs honored couples who have been married 83, 78, 81 and 82 years as part of Worldwide Marriage Encounter, a faith-based marriage enrichment program.
“When we meet with these people and honor them, they look at us like, ‘What’s the big deal?’” said Baumbach.
In truth, however, it is a source of pride for the Rockeys.
For close to a century now — through deaths, through births, through four generations of offspring — they have stood together, often holding hands, devoted to each other.
During a recent phone conversation with a reporter, for instance, Dale Rockey was asked whether he was proud of how long his marriage had lasted.
“No,” he replied, not seeming to quite catch the question.
Alice Rockey, in the background, spoke up.
“He asked if you’re proud of being married so long,” she said.
Again, he said no.
“Dale, you’re not understanding,” Alice said. “Are you proud?”
Dale was silent for a moment.
Then, at last grasping the question, he replied happily: “Proud of it? You bet!”