CARROLLTON, Ga. — They met at a high school basketball game. Their first date was at a county fair, and they got married the Sunday after they both graduated. He was 18; she was 17, so young that she needed her parents’ permission.
That was 77 years ago, May 19, 1940.
This Friday, Joe and Jean Buroker will celebrate their lifetime together with a small reception at The Oaks of Carrollton Retirement and Assisted Living facility. Later on, they will be the center of attention at a family barbecue at the home of their son in Carrollton. It will be a low-key day, for a couple who have grown up and grown old together.
The memories they share are of a hard life in a farming community; of raising three sons and working long hours. Jean, who is 94, does not speak much now. But she smiles as she lets Joe take the lead in conversation, and he recalls almost every detail of the past seven decades.
Joseph Neal Buroker (BURR-oker) and Jean Adrian Black met early in 1937 in the rural Ohio county of Champaign. They were from two different schools and two different townships, but both were star players on their school basketball teams.
The boys’ team and the girls’ team at Joe’s school would be bused over to another school, where they would play a round robin game with their counterparts. Joe was a good player, and his “wild hair” was one of the things that made him a standout on the court. Girls from the other school would throw hairpins at him as he charged up and down the court.
On that day in 1937, Joe and his team were waiting for their chance to play, watching their girls play the team from their opponent’s school, when Joe noticed a guard from the other school.
“She was good at hitting that bucket,” Joe said. “And she was fast on her feet.”
“I told one of my friends, who had moved to that school, I’d like to meet that little gal,’ and he happened to be dating her sister. And, so he went over and told her, and she’d just told her sister the same thing: ‘I’d like to meet him.’ ”
And so they met.
The county in which Joe and Jean grew up was not too different from how Carroll County was 77 years ago, dominated by farming and without much for young people to do. It was a tough life.
Joe’s father died when he was just over two years old, leaving his mother to cope with himself and his two sisters. When his father had gotten ill, his mother had called her oldest boy home from the Navy, but he mysteriously disappeared somewhere between New York and Ohio. No one ever found out what had happened to Joe’s brother, and Joe’s mother didn’t give up hope until Joe entered his sophomore year.
Most of the people around them were farm families, and the farms worked horses because tractors were rare. The only thing Joe knew about his father was that his dad had insisted that his boy be called “just plain old Joe.” It wasn’t until years later that he found out his name was Joseph Neal.
Joe’s first job was taking water out to teams of farmers threshing wheat. He learned how to farm himself, and when his mother needed to rent out his room at home, he moved in with another farming family as a hand to tend their crop.
This was when he was still in school, and about the time he had met Jean. Their first date took place in August, when the county fair was held. After that, they would meet at social events at church or at the Grange, which was an association for farmers and their communities. Occasionally they would catch a picture show in the county seat of Urbana.
“Then in 1938, on Christmas, I gave her a diamond ring for an engagement. And we intended to get married in June after we graduated.” Her parents, seeing that they were “bound and determined” to marry, agreed to sign papers permitting her to do so.
“She graduated on a Thursday night, I graduated on Friday night and we were married on Sunday,” Joe said.
The wedding took place May 19, 1940 at her uncle’s church near Urbana. It turned out, however, that the uncle wasn’t an ordained minister. “So they had to get the minister from the church down the road to pronounce us man and wife.”
On the week of their wedding, war was already taking place in Europe. Only nine days before, Winston Churchill had become Prime Minister of Great Britain, and one year and six months later, the United States was catapulted into the conflict that had engulfed every corner of the world, including rural Ohio.
Although all his friends had gotten into the fight, and Joe had been found fit and was ready to ship out, the government decided that he should keep farming for the war effort.
After the war, he split his time between farming and working for the maker of refrigeration compressors. He moved up the ranks until he was in the engineering lab, where he devised a light overhead crane that would save his company a lot of money. Instead of a raise, he told a company manager he wanted a stock option.
“He said, ‘well, I’ll see what I can do,’ and they called me about 10 days later; said stop in. I stopped in and he said, ‘I’m sorry, but they decided you weren’t far enough up the ladder to have that.’ I said, ‘figure up my tab.’ I left them.
It was not long after that when Joe started a second career — in law enforcement. He began as an animal control officer for the Shelby County, Ohio, sheriff’s office and eventually became one of the officers who picked up and transported prisoners.
“I went from coast to coast and border to border, bringing prisoners back. There was always two of us, of course. And that was the most rewarding job of all of them.”
Jean, according to their son Tony (who manages a pallet-making company in Carrollton) was always the caretaker — both for her family, and for others in the communities where they lived. She worked in a manufacturing plant, then as a cook for the county school system. And when she was 71 years old, more than 50 years after her basketball days, she surprised her family by making 13 baskets in a row, shooting from the foul line of the home basketball court.
So, what’s the secret of staying married 77 years?
“A couple of things,” said Joe. “Give a little and take a lot — it’s an old saying. In most cases in our area, you didn’t have a lot of divorces. When you married somebody, they were yours for life.”
Joseph Buroker holds his wife Jean Buroker’s hand on the porch at The Oaks in Carrollton. The couple will celebrate their 77th wedding anniversary on May 19.
This feature is being published with the permission of The Newspapers of West Georgia, Carrollton, Georgia.