102-Year-Old Couple Faces Life With Grace, Joy and Positivity
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that life can throw us one difficult curveball after another. While the unknown can be frightening, disconcerting and overwhelming, there is always hope. Just ask Hendricks County locals Bob and Gerry Peterson, both 102, who have been married for 79 years. They made it through World War II, have survived two global pandemics, and through it all they have remained steadfast in their commitment to positivity.
Gerry was just 11 months old when her mother died of the Spanish flu in 1919 at age 23. Following the tragedy, Gerry, an only child, was raised by her dad and his half-sister.
“Mom never really spoke about her mother’s passing,” says Sandy Galyan, Bob and Gerry’s daughter. “I don’t think back then people dwelled on the bad. Instead, they wanted to move forward.”
And that she did. Not that she knew it at the time, but in 1923 Gerry met the love of her life, Bob, when she was just 5 years old. Fast-forward to 1936 when the pair graduated from high school. They tied the knot five years later in April of 1941. Not only did they go on to raise three children (Dave, Sandy, and Bob), but they also helped care for Gerry’s dad and Bob’s brother Raymond, a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair.
That kind of commitment is bound to add stress to any marriage, but Bob and Gerry took it all in stride. It may have something to do with the fact that they faced turmoil early on in their union as they married in the midst of World War II.
In 1944 Bob went to enlist in the Army, but when he got to the front of the line, he was met by a relative on Gerry’s side of the family who asked Bob what he was doing.
“I’m joining the Army,” Bob replied.
The man shook his head and handed Bob his papers, then instructed him to get in the line for the Navy.
“Although he didn’t say it outright, he was indirectly telling dad that if he joined the Army, chances weren’t good that he would return from the war,” Sandy says.
Bob joined the Navy and served until 1946. He was sent to Pearl Harbor where he worked in communications as a typist under Admiral Chester Nimitz. While he was serving, Gerry gave birth to their firstborn son, Dave, whom Bob didn’t meet until Dave was 2 years old. Through all of these hardships, however, Bob and Gerry embraced the goodness in life. As for Sandy and her brothers, they learned about commitment, patience, kindness and empathy simply by watching their parents interact.
“In our house, affection was always shown – lots of hugs and kisses,” Sandy says.
There was one particular way that Gerry showed her husband she cared. Every evening she would start making dinner, then stop what she was doing before Bob got home and retreat to the bedroom to fix her hair and makeup, and put on a fresh dress and apron. One day Sandy asked her mom why she went to such trouble.
“I love your dad, and he happens to work in an office with lots of pretty secretaries,” Gerry replied. “I just want to always look my best when he comes home.”
Though Gerry was never particularly athletic through her kids’ younger years, she was always game for going camping, ice skating, roller skating, and anything the family did because she wanted to join in the fun.
For Bob’s part, he often brought home cards for his wife, and whenever he bought her a nice outfit, he had it wrapped.
“Their love was evident just in the way they spoke to each other, with such kindness and respect,” Sandy says.
Bob went to work dressed in a suit and tie, and Gerry laundered and pressed those clothes so that he always looked his best.
“She would do those loving things for him because he was out providing for her,” Sandy says. “It was a continual circle of doing for each other.”
In April the pair will have been married for 80 years, so it’s not surprising that they are often asked about their secret for making love last. The couple insists that it’s very simple.
“We are blessed by God, we treat each other as equals, and we don’t entertain negative thoughts,” Bob says. “A good life is all about positive thinking. Negativity doesn’t get you any place except in trouble.”
“Mom and dad have not only loved each other, but have always been in love with each other,” Sandy adds.
They also spread that love to others. For instance, when Sandy and her brothers were growing up, her parents had a greenhouse on their property. Every Easter, Bob would take a flower, complete with foil and a bow, to widows at their local church. Sandy often helped in this annual endeavor and vividly recalls the feelings it stirred inside of her.
“As we knocked on doors, I remember feeling so excited about bringing joy to someone else,” says Sandy, who for years has regularly volunteered to feed the homeless because she learned early on the satisfaction that comes from helping others. “I was also proud of my dad for being so caring.”
Though the pandemic has been especially tough for the senior population, Sandy says that she and her brothers have continued to speak positively when interacting with their parents.
“We’re using what they taught us to navigate this time,” says Sandy, who every Friday takes her folks dinner from the Coachman, one of their favorite restaurants. “I call mom and dad on Thursday and ask them what they would like for their Friday date-night dinner.”
Sandy has a theory about her parents’ longevity.
“I think that God said to mom and dad, ‘A long time ago, I asked you to care for your parent and your brother during your early married life, so now in your later years, I’m going to give you extra time together,’” Sandy says.
Being 102, the couple has plenty to reminisce about.
“Mom is more forgetful now, but what helps them stay connected is the fact that any given time, one of them can go back and say, ‘I was just thinking about so-and-so,’ and they can have a conversation about it,” Sandy says.
Not long ago Sandy asked her mom how far back she could remember knowing her dad, and there was a long pause that tugged at Sandy’s heart as she worried that perhaps the memories were starting to fade. Gerry sat and stared for a bit, and then all of a sudden looked up and said, “Well, maybe the first recollection I have at the moment would be in the fifth grade.”
It’s also rather remarkable to still be able to draw stories from two living, breathing history books, as Sandy and her siblings gather details about their ancestors. For instance, Gerry’s Swedish grandparents put their 15-year-old daughter (Gerry’s mother) on a ship that went from Sweden to Belfast to America. She sat in steerage in the bottom of a ship where half the people couldn’t even talk to each other. When she arrived at Ellis Island, she registered as a servant.
“More than anything, I just have to say that it’s a privilege to have mom and dad as parents,” Sandy says. “They’ve taught us to be grateful and kind. They are honestly just so much fun.”