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Key to marriage? Family, faith and sweet potatoes

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Evelyn Thornton’s head is thrown back over her shoulder in the small black and white photo, a playful smile on her lips and a glint in her eyes.

For nearly 70 years, Abraham Thornton, Evelyn’s husband, has carried the small buoyant photo in his wallet. Even when he stopped driving two years ago — at 97 — he kept the photo in his wallet.

“He’s had it ever since he met her,” says their daughter Charlotte Thornton.

The fact that Abraham still carries his wife’s photo shouldn’t be a surprise. The Detroit couple has been married longer than most people have been alive, marking their 70th wedding anniversary in January. And in early May, Abraham turned 99. Their family celebrated with lunch at MotorCity Casino.

So what’s the key to seven decades of marriage and nearly living to 100 years old? Relatives say family and faith have been essential. But sweet potatoes — which Evelyn served nearly every day for decades — have certainly helped, too.

“They’ve had them almost every day of his life since they got married,” says Charlotte, 69, who now lives with her parents and helps care for them.

But nothing sustains this couple the way their faith does, their daughters say. They are longtime members of Detroit’s Calvary Baptist Church.

“She’s rooted in prayer — and she’s taught that to my dad,” says Charlotte.

To this day, even as her memory fades, Evelyn leans on her faith.

“If you are trying to do something and you can’t do it, talk to God,” says Evelyn, 87, sitting next to Abraham in the couple’s brick bungalow in west Detroit where they’ve lived for 59 years. “That’s how all my children went to school and they’ve done very good things.”

Good things indeed. Their son Bruce played for the Dallas Cowboys for seven years. And all of the children have had successful careers.

Abraham and Evelyn met after World War II. Abraham, who served in the war, and his brother Woodrow worked at a soap factory that abutted the backyard of Evelyn’s family’s home. After their shifts, they’d hang out by the back fence line and Evelyn’s mom, Marze Turner, would give them a cool drink. Evelyn wasn’t especially interested in Abraham but her mother liked him. And he was persistent.

“She’d come home from school and tell him she had to go to work. He’d be on the porch and say, ‘I’ll wait for you,’ ” says Charlotte. “She didn’t want to be bothered by him. But she’d come home from work and he’d still be sitting there.”

Abraham eventually won Evelyn over. They married in 1947 and had five children. Abraham, who had a long career as a truck driver, also had two children from a previous marriage.

“We met when we were young kids,” says Abraham. “I thought, ‘I love you.’ ”

Raising their children on the cusp of the civil rights movement in a tough Detroit neighborhood, the couple led by example. When there wasn’t busing in their neighborhood to get the kids to school, Evelyn organized neighbors, parents and PTOs until the board of education agreed to offer busing (the board also eventually offered her a job). They were also Boy Scout and Girl Scout leaders. Abraham would fix up bikes in the neighborhood and give them away.

“They would always tell us, you can be whatever you want,” says daughter Denise, who lives in Atlanta and works for Coca-Cola. “But be the best at whatever you do. Whatever you’re going to do, do it and do it right.”

Not that there hasn’t been heartache over the last 70 years. Their son Aaron died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1985 at age 44. Abraham is now in a wheelchair and the family is fighting to get a ramp installed at their house.

Still, this longtime couple quietly continues to lead in their own way. Charlotte and Denise say friends and neighbors, some of whom they don’t even know, still stop by to ask how their parents are doing.

“Everything that we are — we’re very close — we owe to our parents,” says Charlotte.

Twitter: @mfeighan