There are not many who have been married for 53 years, and fewer still who can claim to have lived that long in faithful matrimony and still be in love. Most marriages succumb to societal expectations of what marriage is supposed to be becoming unequally weighted favoring one over the other. Some others fall prey to the weight of life’s performance pressures driving deep wedges between two people who fail to recognize the division until it is too late. During our interview, my uncle said, “I don’t think Granny and Grand Daddy (whom we cousins idealized as perfect) would have stayed together if he had not been saved.”
A Reluctant Acquaintance
Richard and Paulette’s story is not a conventional love story by any means. Paulette Ferguson was literally, the girl next door. Her home could be seen through the yards of two homes that faced my uncle’s house across the street. When they met as teenagers, my aunts Ruth and Kathryn were four and eight years younger than Richard and often played with Paulette’s younger sisters, Janice and Cheryl. Richard was virtually unaware of the existence of his future bride during this time; already so enamored with his plans to pursue the ministry.
By tenth grade, Richard began working at the local grocery. He dated, but none of the girls made an impression on him as none of them wanted to be preacher’s wives. That year, Richard and Paulette shared an English Class. As she sat in the first row, bouffant hair and horn-rimmed glasses, he noticed, “she was a very sophisticated, beautiful, young lady.” Still, the observation was not enough to warrant even so much as a first date. A reluctant student, Richard studied hard seeking to gain the favor of his stern Irish father, despite his disdain for it. Much like his more mischievous older brother Bill, Richard became the class clown and joker.
Eventually, my grandfather became fishing buddies with Mr. Ferguson and the families became acquainted. My aunts tried to get Richard to ask Paulette out, but he was dating her best friend. Then one day, when the best friend was away, Richard was finally and formally introduced to his neighbor. Even then, there were no real sparks. In fact, you might say there was more annoyance. Paulette and her sisters began to commute to school with Bill and Richard every morning. This often made Richard late to an early Bible study that occurred before school which aggravated him considering Bible study was nearly the only thing in school he cared about.
Then one Sunday, the Fergusons decided to visit the family’s church, Macon Road Baptist. My grandmother told Richard that Paulette would be in his department, and she wanted him to be friendly to her. Richard lead the music in the Intermediate Department made up of teenagers. And it just so happened, that day the normal pianist didn’t show up. Knowing that Paulette played the piano, Richard invited her to fill in. “My mother told me to be friendly to her, and so I was. And I’ve been friendly to her ever since.”
A Preacher’s Wife
Through junior and senior year, their courtship was not particularly romantic. They began to date around church functions, socializing with their Christian friends and family at revivals and other church events. Between work and school, they had little time for anything else. What made Paulette stand out from her peers was that she wanted to be a preacher’s wife. Richard was looking for one, and Paulette could play piano so he thought that was a pretty good match.
Richard continued to work at the grocery after high school, and Paulette began working at the phone company. After graduation, Richard attended Mid-South Bible College to pursue his dream of becoming a minister. Still not fond of school, he continued to work hard at it without the support and approval of his father who thought he should pursue a career in the fire department like his older brother. Paulette became a member of Macon Road and not only sang in the church ensemble, but wrote the church paper. She was well on her way to becoming the epitome of a bride of the church.
Then came time for Richard to finalize his degree in the liberal arts. Perhaps in a subconscious effort to rid himself of the daily reminder of his dad’s disapproval, Richard chose Tennessee Temple in Chattanooga for his continuing education. At the time, Richard had not given much thought to marriage, but when Paulette found out about Richard’s decision she told him, “You’re not going without me.” And so, after nearly three years, the couple married on December 30, 1966, ready to begin a new life in a new year.
With no job and no parental approval from either the Fergusons or my grandparents, Richard and Paulette moved nearly 400 miles from the westernmost corner of the state to the easternmost corner. Their first home would be a small studio apartment that rented for $50 per month including utilities. Richard got another job at a Kroger grocery and Paulette became a housewife.
The Future Ahead
They led a modest, but good life they were proud to call their own. Richard’s brothers and sisters visited occasionally, and holidays made Chattanooga feel more like home. After graduation, Richard went on to achieve his Masters in Divinity in 1972. They moved to a larger apartment, Paulette became pregnant and was immediately put on bed rest due to prior miscarriages. Every day Richard would come home from school for lunch to care for her before heading to work. He was a dutiful and diligent husband. They had the obligatory dog, a baby on the way, and nothing but a bright future ahead.
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