Writing letters of love
Cedar Lane couple ‘united together’ in marriage since days of World War II
In a week, Jean and Earl DeNeale will have been married for 73 years. She is 90. He is 95. On Aug. 5, 1944, they got married at Congress Heights Baptist Church, half a mile away from his elementary school at Congress Heights in Washington, D.C. He was 22, and she was 17.
On her wedding day, she wore a dove gray dress because white fabric was scarce during World War II. He wore his Navy dress whites. They spent about $50 on their wedding.
“A room and a couple of meals,” he said. That was it.
The couple met in the nation’s capital after she moved to Washington from New Jersey
when her father came to work at the Navy Yard.
One day, she was on her way to a girlfriend’s home when he pulled his 1934 Ford coupe in front her and suggested to take her home.
She had seen him around a restaurant where kids in the area used to hang out for ice cream and sandwiches. She got in, sat in between him and his friend, Monty Cosman, in a car that had one passenger seat. And that was the beginning of it all.
In the decades that followed, he worked as an aircraft engineer in the Air Force for about 47 years, retiring from Andrews Air Force Base in 1972. She was a homemaker and provided day care services for a number of years. They have three children, seven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
Earl grew up visiting his parents’ beach house in Hollywood on weekends. The couple moved to St. Mary’s in 1972 to take care of his mother and later left in 1990. The DeNeales moved back to St. Mary’s County in 2000 to be closer to their children and grandchildren. They have lived in the Cedar Lane Senior Living community since 2014.
About three years ago, their youngest daughter, Donna DeNeale, a graduate of the St. Mary’s Academy, found a box full of love letters when she was cleaning her parents’ house.
Earl wrote Jean more than 100 letters after she returned to her grandparents’ home in New Jersey a year after they met. After she left, he looked for her, went to her father, asked for her address and went to New Jersey to visit her on a regular basis.
During the long-distance relationship, he wrote her letters from a helicopter hangar during his midnight shifts. He destroyed the letters she wrote back, because he didn’t want anyone else to see them.
In the letters, he called her “dearest Jean” and “my future wife.”
On July 18, Donna read one of the letters for the first time. It was stamped Feb. 25, 1944. In the letter, he told her he was coming to visit her along with his friend, Monty.
“Unload some of your boyfriends or there will be hell to pay,” he wrote. Donna laughed after she read that part of the letter out loud, adding that the voice in the letter sounded very much like her father.
“My dad has mellowed out a lot” in recent years, but “he’s very strong-willed,” she said. “When he wants something, he’s going to go after it and get it.”
Donna said her parents are “wonderful, model parents.” When she was a kid, her home was the house where all her friends and her siblings’ friends came to hang out.
Her parents had arguments, she said. But they would tell her “we are not arguing; we are discussing.”
Marriage is about working through the disagreements, the couple said. Often, compromises have to be made. “At times, you have to evaluate a lot of things,” Earl said. “Sometimes you got to give up some things. Maybe the next day, it will be the other way around.”
But throughout their marriage, they have developed a shared love for hunting, fishing and building houses together.
“My parents have done everything together,” Donna said. “Whatever they do, they do it together.”
If he was on the roof working on things, she would be on the ladder handing him the tools, she said.
Before Donna was getting ready to get married in 1980, her mother told her that “there’s going to be lots of ups and downs,” and she and her future husband might discover things they wouldn’t like about each other. But when Jean married Earl, she had made up her mind that divorce was not going to be an option, because her own parents had divorced when she was about 3 years old.
In the 1930s, “no one was divorced,” Donna said. It was so shameful that her mother said she had to keep it a secret because she wasn’t allowed to play with some of the other kids.
So when she got married, she knew divorce was never going to be an option, because she wasn’t going to put her children through what she had gone through, her daughter said. Donna said she didn’t think her parents were ever close to getting separated.
When they have disagreements now, he has the option to pull out his hearing aids when he prefers not to listen, his daughter said with a laugh. But in his younger days, when his hearing was sound, they always made up before they went to bed, because “they always slept in the same bed,” she said.
Jean described her husband as a “loving, caring” person who is the “ultimate helper.”
“With his cane, he’s carrying everyone’s lunch,” Donna said.
Recently, Cedar Lane changed its schedule and residents are asked to pick up their meal at 12:30 p.m., she said. Some residents would forget that change and miss their meals. So her father would either get some of the residents to line up for the pickup or he would deliver the meals to them. “That’s my dad,” she said. Earl described his wife as “good and thoughtful,” a person who cared for some of his relatives as they aged or became ill.
“We hunted together; we fished together; we boated together,” Earl said. In summary, they are “united together.”
Jean and Earl DeNeale sit in their apartment at Cedar Lane Senior Living Community on July 18.
Donna DeNeale, the youngest daughter of the DeNeales, reads one of the love letters her father wrote to her mother in the 1940s.
A love letter lays on top of the box that holds more than 100 letters Earl DeNeale wrote to his wife Jean DeNeale in the 1940s. At the time, a stamp costed three cents.