Chapter 3 – A HALF-CENTURY OF MARRIAGE
A. Engagement, Marriage, & Honeymoon
My dad always said, “If Mom said ‘No’ to my marriage proposal, I would have just dropped the ring down through the cracks in the boards on the bridge over the water to Marshall Island”. Ralph Pearce (1917-2002) had been born in the old farm house just down Pearce Mill Road in what is now North Park. That public works project began in 1927 when the officials of Allegheny County, PA, paid the Pearce Family, who had been there since 1820, for their grist mill and 200-acre farm and required them to leave. Dad’s grandparents and great-grandparents before each raised 10 children on that property. My grandfather’s family consisted of four brothers, and few ever moved far in the early stages of their marriages. We had annual reunions in the park, swam in the giant public pool, and took advantage of all the other amenities the land had to offer. It wasn’t so strange then that Dad chose that old bridge to propose to Mom in 1938. Obviously she said, “Yes” or I wouldn’t be here writing this story. I was the third of four children, born 10 years later.
Thus begins the Third Chapter in my memoir. Here is where we change directions from Chapter Two: coverage of the four places where I grew from childhood to youth to adulthood. Here I’ll go back, part way, to Moon Township, Indiana, and Penn State. I’ll refer to episodes in Susan’s home territory of northern Somerset County, where we were married, and carry the story through to the little nearby town of Jerome and finally to Forwardstown, not so much a “town” as an historical reference to the origins of where we settled for almost half a century.
If you’ve read my autobiography up until now, you know that I met my wife, Susan, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the largest of the State’s fully owned public institutions of high education. She was of German ancestry through and through: her mother half Lutheran and half Amish; her dad half Lutheran and half Church of the Brethren; all living then in northern Somerset County, PA. The only German in my North Pittsburgh English-Scots-Irish family was my maternal Great-grandmother Hoffman. As an aside, my Scots-Irish were much more head strong than any of Susan’s Germans, and I suppose that will show in the decisions that were made in our 50+ year marriage. I had seen Susan around the Music Department at IUP but don’t know if I ever talked to her until we had an 8:00 World History class across the Oak Grove from our Cogswell Hall. How’s that for my reference to ethnic background? Of course, I had to walk her back to our department after class. I don’t remember what was said, except that I remember her long brown hair, brown eyes, soft voice, and sweet disposition. She would say that I was the kid who sat near the front and asked all those questions so early in the morning. I got a “B” in that class, which was unusual for an out of department required class. If that bothered her, it didn’t show when I attended a vocal recital toward the end of the semester in which she sang. I was smitten: she had a great singing voice too!As I said in the last section, I asked Susan to be my date for the Phi Mu Alpha banquet second semester, junior year. PMA is an honorary fraternity, membership in which is awarded by IUP’s music department. She said “Yes,” and at least I had a great time that night. She’ll say that I flirted with my best friend’s date. We rode together and sat at the same table. She would say that I wasn’t serious. Of course I deny that and ask, “Why would we continue to date?” “Why would you take me home that summer to meet your parents?” “The next year, why would I ask them for permission to marry you?” And most convincing, “Why would I propose to you and marry you that year, 1970?”
I have many fond memories of time together back then with Susan. One of the craziest involved a visit to her home in Somerset County that summer, which would normally be about a 50-minute ride on my 100 c.c. Yamaha motorcycle from campus. The ride took me through the city of Johnstown, where the closest Yamaha dealer was. I needed a part from there and so I decided to stop at a pay phone in front of the War Memorial Arena in the city to tell her my plans, but that I was on my way. After a brief but excited conversation, I turned to step out of the phone booth only to come face-to-face with a giant elephant. What a picture: here’s this young roadie wondering, “Where am I?” and “What kind of place is this where my future wife lives?” Fortunately, the large pachyderm was on a leash, out for a walk with her handler, both of whom worked for a traveling circus performing at the arena. How can I every forget that moment? By the way, The Yamaha dealer was just south of town, not far from where Susan and my future home in Forwardstown would be five years later. You’ll learn about that later, but all this is to say that after buying what I needed, I made a wrong turn on the way to Susan’s house, rode west up over the Laurel Ridge to the town of Ligonier, and after having to make another call for directions to Susan, I arrived at her house at least a half-hour late – not a good way to maintain a relationship. To this day, I wonder if the elephant encounter affected my judgement. Oh well, we still laugh at that story!
One of the great ironies of my marriage proposal, spring semester of my senior year, a year after our first date, was that it was on April 18. Our son, Matthew, was born on that exact date three years later. I also remember that date as the night Paul Revere rode shouting, “The British are coming. The British are coming.” Anyway, my/our special day was a Saturday. I had brought Susan home to Moon Township from IUP and, when we weren’t together, I was washing and sweeping out the car in preparation for the big night. Dinner was enjoyed at a fancy restaurant with an unusual name, Sgro’s Distinctive Dining, along Pittsburgh’s Parkway West. Being a big fan of popular singer Jack Jones, I told her that I wanted to see a movie in a theater in the North Hills for which he sang the title track, “Love with the Proper Stranger.” The food was expensive but OK; Jack was great, as usual; but the film, though a rom-com with an all-star cast, was a bit unsavory, containing all the things that would certainly break-up a marriage. Fortunately, the next part was beyond memorable. I don’t think I had ever told Susan about Dad proposing to Mom in North Park, so when the movie ended, we drove a few miles from the theater to Marshall Lake and I parked across the road from the bridge.
I’m sure she never expected anything. Fortunately, neither of us saw the sign saying, “No stopping after dark” or my best laid plans would have been for naught. We walked across the rickety wooden bridge to the small island, looked around briefly, then started back to the car. You know the rest of the story: about halfway across we stopped and I kissed her, asking, “Will you marry me?” Thanks heavens she said, “YES.” I kissed her again and looked over toward the road. There was a park police car stopped, and the officer got out. As he walked toward us my heart pounded furiously. He shouted, “No stopping after dark.” Our feet were already in motion toward shore. I answered without explanation, “We’re just leaving, Officer.” He let us go, but I’ll always wonder if he had any idea of what had just happened. I often wonder if my dad put him up to that!
Another irony of the Susan Miller-Larry Pearce relationship was that after our engagement the spring of 1970, while I was student teaching, Susan found herself in a class back at IUP sitting next to a fellow student named “Susan Miller.” But wait, it gets better: her fiance was also a “Larry Pearce” who was teaching somewhere in Pittsburgh. I swear it wasn’t me. How about this: They were married at St. David’s Lutheran Church sometime later, where Susan and I were married Thanksgiving weekend that same year. I remember the pastor, Rev. Arthur Gottwald, mentioning that during our pre-nuptual consultation. What a coincidence. Unfortunately, Susan believes that they have since divorced.
As I wrote in the IUP chapter, Susan and I spent a lot of time together at college that summer before I went off to Penn State to begin graduate studies as she finished her credits near home, student teaching. Our wedding had been set for the Saturday after Christmas, just like my mom and dad’s. However, we had second thoughts about the date, considering the potential winter weather’s effect on the distance my Pittsburgh area relatives would have to drive. This well-planned event wouldn’t be quite like Mom & Dad’s simple ceremony with family dinner to follow. The Saturday after Thanksgiving was set. We wanted to marry near Susan’s home in northern Somerset County, but her Lutheran parents had just changed churches to a small Methodist and it had no pipe organ. We chose the newest, most beautiful sanctuary we could find – and it had a magnificent pipe organ. I began to compose music for the service, but when we asked the church’s organist to play it, he politely declined. After failing my organ jury earlier that year, I certainly understood, and we selected wedding music that he was comfortable with. Susan’s vocal teacher sang, and all went well with the service.
Other aspects of the wedding planning never came to fruition. Despite being a classically trained musician, I was a big Johnny Cash fan. His TV show was immensely popular at that time. I wanted to dress like him for the wedding and take my bride on a wagon ride afterwards. I guess my gold shirt under the tuxedo came close. At least it wasn’t the sterile white I was used to wearing in performances at IUP. Although my brother-in-law Dan had a horse at the time, the foggy, rainy weather discouraged the wagon ride. I did get the thing I wanted the most – Susan!
Several incidents are memorable. First my sister, Ellen, who was home for Thanksgiving from her college in Bowling Green, Ohio, was in the wedding party with several of Susan’s friends. Poor Ellen had been terribly sick that week and attended neither the Friday evening wedding rehearsal nor the rehearsal dinner. Mom and Dad had to take her to the nearby Somerset Hospital for emergency treatment and they too missed the activities.
To be honest, most of the rest of the night and next day are still a blur. While I don’t know where all the out-of-towners in the wedding party spent the night, I believe that most of the Pearces, my parents, my sister, and I returned to Moon Township, only to be back at the church for the 2:30 service. By the way, Mom being of superstitious Scots-Irish descent, advised us that a marriage should begin at the bottom of the hour, with the big hand and outlook headed up! As for our outfits, the men’s tuxedos had been rented, but the ladies’ gorgeous gowns had been hand-sewn by a local seamstress. One memorable picture shows my sister about to start up the aisle with our sister-in-law Jean still working to fasten a bow at the back of her dress. The picture in this story’s header shows Susan arm-in-arm with her dad about to start up the aisle. What the picture doesn’t show, according to Susan, is her shaking like a leaf, whispering to her dad that she wasn’t ready to make such a lifetime commitment. Her dad, literally a tough old World War II veteran, said something to the effect, “Too late now. You’ll be fine.”
I was ushered in from the side by my best man Gary, two older brothers, Carl “Butch” and Paul (the goofy one in the picture above), and brother-in-law Dan. True to my nature I too was shaking and in tears through the first hymn. I had been instructed by our highly liturgical Lutheran Pastor Gottwald NOT to turn and face the bride coming in. Our photographer wasn’t even allowed to take pictures in the sanctuary during the service. His belief was that this was to be a time of worship, not some kind of a show. I’ve never heard of such a practice, and certainly didn’t agree with him, especially since this was our wedding, but nevertheless I complied.
Surely, the most memorable part of the ceremony was when Susan and I knelt at the altar rail to offer the wedding prayer. I had wondered why my brothers had been so reluctant to give me my shoes before I entered the sanctuary. They had even helped me put them on. But the entire congregation must have been in stitches as they read the letters on the bottoms of my shoes, “H E” on the left and “L P” on the right. I had no idea until my brother’s pictures came back.
I remember the reception downstairs in the church. I was a happy time despite many of my friends and relatives from Pittsburgh who left right after the ceremony so they could get home in the fog, before dark. Some complained that they hadn’t been able to find a place to eat before the 2:30 wedding after driving for several hours. Other told us later that they settled for bar food in the few eateries in the township.
Susan’s mother and her friends prepared food for the modest reception: sandwiches with the crusts left on at my request. We had a delicious cake, which Susan and I fed each other without smearing it all over each other as has become the custom. We enjoyed coffee, tea, and punch – no alcohol as few in either family drank and we respected the church.
We didn’t open the gifts at the church, probably because of the inclement weather and allowing guests to return home. Instead, we made a joyous exit to Susan’s home, about five miles away. There, we greeted the immediate family from Somerset and around the country. We opened the presents, changed clothes, and made preparations to leave on the honeymoon. Here’s where the great mystery occurred: Who placed the horse turds under the front seat, under the hood on the engine block, and on top of the hood of the car? We know where they came from. I said before that Susan’s brother had a horse. But, was he assisted by the same jokesters who had written “HELP” on the bottom of my shoes? I think so. Surely, the blame goes to my brothers Paul and Carl, brother-in-law Dan, and even perhaps to my best man Gary. The most amazing part to me is that Susan and I didn’t discover the turds on the hood of the car until we left Susan home, drove and hour east in the fog to Everett, when they became apparent under the town lights there. By then it was raining, so we left them in place for Mother Nature to clean things up. We did not discover the turds under the front seat of the car nor on the engine block until we got back home three days later, which by then were sufficiently dried.
Driving east on Rt. 30, our first stop was Gettysburg, where we had hotel reservations. After a restful night’s sleep, thanks to a little wine, we toured the national park. To this day I like to say jokingly, “We started our honeymoon on the Gettysburg battlefield and we’ve been fighting ever since.” Only recently have I learned that my 5XGreat-grandfather William Hill, on my dad’s side, farmed just south of there, on the contested land that today includes parts of Maryland and Pennsylvania. I have written about that famous Mason-Dixon line, In fact, Grandfather William married Elizabeth Dixon, and I’m still trying to find a link to fame. Members of my mother’s Gray family fought for the North and I have made their letters and memorials available at “Grays in the Civil War.” My Great-great Grandfather William, a teamster, is remembered below.Our second night was spent in Amish country, Lancaster County. Certainly Susan’s Anabaptist grandmother Annie, for whom our daughter is named, wasn’t far from our minds. We ate Amish food and toured an Amish farm.
By Monday morning we were ready to head home. After a brief stop at an antique auto museum near Harrisburg, during which Susan heard the wrath of management for leaning on a car, we made it as far as Schellsburg, Bedford County, where we stopped for supper. Susan did not like that location. Monday was the first day of deer season in Pennsylvania, and the diner was full of smelly hunters who stared at us and made comments. I thought it was memorable, and the food was good!
An hour after finishing our meal and continuing down Rt. 30 west, we arrived at Susan’s parent’s home near Boswell. Having had the first day of buck season off, her school was starting up again the next day and she was required to resume her student teaching. I too had to get back to Penn State to pick-up my studies. Within a month, after the Christmas-New Years holidays, we would be moving many of her belongings to a little village just south of State College called Pine Grove Mills. There, a marriage that has lasted more than 50 years would truly begin. Read all about it in the coming installments.
Move to: Chpt. 3B – Early Marriage Months in Pine Grove Mills
Return to: TABLE OF CONTENTS
Last revised 2/12/22