2012-02-09 / News

A Valentine’s story: The Washburns celebrate 50 years of marriage

The couple, who own Art’s Auto Body Shop, tied the knot in Atlanta in 1961

Art and Jan Washburn, who own Art’s Auto Body Shop on Southwest Avenue, were married 50 years ago in Atlanta. “You’ve got to be best friends,” Jan says about the couple’s secret of marriage. “It’s very important to have a friendship, and not just a love affair.” 
PHOTO BY JEFF MCDONOUGH Art and Jan Washburn, who own Art’s Auto Body Shop on Southwest Avenue, were married 50 years ago in Atlanta. “You’ve got to be best friends,” Jan says about the couple’s secret of marriage. “It’s very important to have a friendship, and not just a love affair.” PHOTO BY JEFF MCDONOUGH Maybe the lucky car put Art and Jan Washburn on the road to 50 years of marriage, the couple joked when asked why they’ve spent almost their entire lives together.

He remembers picking her up for a first date in that black and gold 1955 Studebaker. He had bought the car used and customized it.

“I did the body work,” he said. “That Studebaker was the first car I ever took to a show and won a trophy with.” It’s still on the road, although another owner, Sammy Matoes, has the Studebaker now and also might claim that some romantic luck rubbed off on him. Matoes also rode with his wifeto be in the black and gold Studebaker.

“They’ve been married years and years,” Art said. But joking aside, the couple said the secret of staying together five decades stems from being best friends and helping each other, even when times are tough.

“You’ve got to be best friends,” Jan said. “It’s very important to have a friendship, and not just a love affair.”

She turned to her husband.

“Isn’t that right?” she said.

“Sure,” he laughed. “I’m going to agree – that’s all I’m going to do. That’s how you do 50 years.”

Washburn was 22 and had been out of the Air Force about a year when he met his future wife. She had just finished high school in Atlanta and arrived in Jamestown for the summer to visit her sister.

“She was a hot chick,” he said, conceding he had noticed her pretty much right away. Jamestown was a tiny town in those days, and everybody knew everybody else. On their first date, they just sat and talked with a group of friends.

“He was a nice guy,” she said. “He was very good looking. Very blond.”

“It’s platinum now,” he said.

“Blond hair and blue eyes,” she said. “I couldn’t resist. We dated a little bit here.”

“I was after her too,” he said.

The couple went to a lot of beach parties and movies. Sometimes they’d go over to East Greenwich to shop at a mill, which is now out of business. Then he’d take her out to dinner.

“Those were the good old days in Jamestown,” he said.

Dinner, in those days, was modest. They’d go for a hot dog or to a clam shack. When the summer ended, she went home to Atlanta. He wrote her a letter, but can’t remember if he actually proposed in it.

“I might have been leading up to it,” he said. He wrote in the letter that he was going to be in Atlanta and hoped to visit her.

“I was taking a load of boats to Florida,” he said. He was transporting them by trailer. He even told his boss, Bobby Clarke at American Boats, he might not be coming back to Jamestown.

“He wrote that he was coming,” she said. “I guess it did [seem serious]. I was dating a guy pretty seriously.” But once she’d met Art, she lost interest in the other boyfriend. “Boom,” she said. “Gone.”

They got married in Atlanta. Washburn’s best friend, Joe Godena, had made the trip with him and was his best man at the wedding on Nov. 25, 1961. They were married a couple of days after Thanksgiving and two days after her birthday.

Jan’s mother had to sign consent because she was only 17. They might have stayed in Atlanta – Godena and Art had even found jobs down in Georgia.

“I always had good paying jobs,” he said. But they decided to return to Rhode Island because Godena had received a job offer from Electric Boat.

Jan said that she never hesitated to move here. “When I first came to Rhode Island and rode that ferryboat, I felt like I belonged here,” she said. “I absolutely loved it up here.”

The couple has three grown children: Artie Washburn, Cynthia Rose and Natalie Washburn, plus six granddaughters and two great-granddaughters. They all celebrated the 50th anniversary at a big bash in November.

Jan couldn’t think of the most romantic thing he ever did, but said the whole marriage was a romance. They did a lot of little things for each other every day along with some big things, like a cruise they took together.

“I just thought of something very romantic,” she said. “He used to wake me up at 4 in the morning.”

“I’m going to Beavertail,” he’d say. The couple would then go sit on the rocks and watch the sunrise.

“I did that?” asked Art. “I’m going to lose my tough guy image.”

And, she added, he always had flowers waiting for her when she returned from a trip or from the hospital.

They had some rough times, too, they said. He was in a bad motorcycle accident “years and years ago” and was hospitalized for two or three weeks. The accident happened when she was pregnant with their first child.

But all ended happily. Ultimately, he even got back on his Honda, and she joined him on her matching bike.

The motorcycle was the same model as his, she said, but smaller. They used to motorcycle with a group of friends. They traveled to Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Then another crisis struck when he gave up a good job at the Navy base to start his own business. They decided on the career change together. To this day the couple owns Art’s Auto Body Shop on Southwest Avenue.

“It was scary,” she said. “We had three little kids to feed.” But she worked in the office and helped. And she also used to help him refurbish cars and trucks for auto shows.

One of his show trucks won more than 400 prizes, he said.

“She’d be out in her nightgown holding stuff for me at 2 a.m.,” he said. She even has a Class 2 license and sometimes drives one of the rigs. She’s also a good cook, he said.

As for that lucky car, he sold it in 1961 or 1962, during the first year of their marriage.

“The reason he sold it was to buy a bedroom set,” she said. “We were struggling at the time. We had bought bits and pieces of furniture, so he sold the Studebaker to buy me a bedroom set.”

The new owner just let the car sit, Washburn said, but then Matoes bought it, painted it red and brought it back to its old glory.

“Maybe it was a lucky car,” he said.

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