Husband and wife celebrate their 56th Valentine’s Day together
The country celebrates Valentine’s Day this week, and there aren’t too many love stories better than that of Jim and Gwen Keller of Jamestown. Jim is a retired Presbyterian minister, Gwen a retired registered nurse, and in June the couple will have been married for 56 years.
The couple met while in the second grade in Coventry, Conn. They remained friends over the years, but nothing more. Jim went off to college at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he graduated in 1955. Following graduation, he was given the opportunity to join a movement called the Iona Community in Scotland. He would be an assistant minister to the congregation there – the job required a two-year commitment.
Meanwhile, Gwen was doing her psychiatric rotation of training at the Norwich Mental Health Center in Connecticut. Jim went down to see Gwen a week and a half before he left because they had always been good friends. They had a picnic behind Gwen’s dorm and she asked Jim how long he would be gone.
“I said that I was going to be there for two years,” Jim said. “Then she said that two years was a long time. That was the beginning of our understanding that we were much, much more than good friends.”
The couple became unofficially engaged at that point, and when Gwen came across the Atlantic Ocean to visit Jim in Scotland, the following year they made it offi- cial on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides. “It’s a very holy, and very romantic island,” said Jim.
After a three-month stay in Scotland, Gwen returned to the United States to plan the wedding. Jim returned from Scotland, and the two married on June 1, 1957.
Following the wedding, Jim got a call from a friend offering him a job at a parish in the South Bronx, a job he held for 10 years.
“I said to Gwen, ‘How about going to the South Bronx?’ She said, ‘Sure.’ A lot of people wouldn’t say ‘sure.’”
During their time in New York, the Kellers had three children. After a one-year sabbatical, Jim took a job at the Harvard Divinity School, and the family of five was on its way to Arlington, Mass.
A year later, Jim’s career offered him another opportunity. He took a position 30 miles north in Lawrence, Mass., where he worked for the Greater Lawrence Ecumenical Area Ministry. The family moved once again, this time to North Andover, where they remained for 19 years.
After working with the growing Hispanic population of Lawrence for nearly two decades, Jim had a desire to go to a Spanish-speaking country. Once again, Gwen readily agreed. They ended up in Cuernavaca, Mexico, working in a retreat center that North American church communicants visited to learn about the realities of living in the Third World.
“Gwen became a very important person in that retreat center,” Jim said. “She worked with the Mexican women doing all of the planning and hospitality for the guests. She was the one who kept the heart and soul.”
Jim said his wife was able to keep the two different groups of people together: the poorer Latin community and the Americans who weren’t usually exposed to that type of deprivation.
“People were being turned upside down when they had the reality of the poor exposed to them,” said Jim. “Gwen kept them spiritually comfortable.”
While living in the Bronx, the couple had visited a friend in Jamestown in 1960. They decided to buy 2 acres of land and build a small vacation house. The land at the time cost $1,500. The cost of the house was $3,500. In 1993, after returning from Mexico, they moved into the house on Blueberry Lane. They have lived there full time ever since.
Although Jim has officially retired, he has taken some interim jobs. One was at a Presbyterian church in Warwick, another at a ministry in Providence. He has always been involved in social issues and remains so today.
“That’s been my forte,” he says. “Whether it’s been immigration reform, antiwar activity or racial justice.”
Jim said that one reason his marriage to Gwen has lasted as long as it has is her willingness to join him on his adventures, whether it meant moving to the South Bronx or Mexico. He said that not many spouses would be as willing as she is to pack her stuff and follow her husband on his next adventure.
“We’ve had a good marriage over the years,” Jim said. “We have three children and a fourth who we unofficially adopted from Liberia. I’ll be 82 in March, and my wife was 82 in January, so I married an older woman.”
On Jan. 25, 2012, the couple was walking with friends in the north end when Gwen became ill. Jim immediately went to get the car thinking that he would drive Gwen to Newport Hospital. Instead, in a decision he calls “the best I ever made,” he drove directly to the Jamestown Police Station. From there EMS took Gwen to the hospital where she was in intensive care with a heart ailment for 5 1/2 weeks. That has been followed by ongoing rehabilitation and doctors have been thrilled with her progress.
“We didn’t know if she was coming home or not coming home,” Jim said. “She’s back singing in the Jamestown Community Chorus and the Baptist church choir.”
Gwen said that among her high school friends, there are couples that have been married even longer than the Kellers.
“When we got married, we got married to one person and expected to stay with that one person until we finished,” Gwen said. “We’re hoping to go on a little longer. It’s been a very fruitful, a very nice marriage. We’re very thankful for all that we’ve been given.”