Story and photos by Susan Mikula Campbell
John Jr. and Frances Herstek are still each other's valentines.
While celebrity marriages today sometimes can be measured in days and weeks, the Wheatfield couple will celebrate 71 years together on Feb. 7. Their day is made even more special by the fact it is John's 96th birthday.
At the Wheatfield Senior Center recently, someone shouted, "Here comes the lovebirds!" when the Hersteks entered. "You'd better believe it!" John responded.
"They're always together and they do everything together," said Arlene Mante, Wheatfield senior director.
How do you make a marriage last 71 years?
"Just take one day at a time, that's all," said John.
"We have a sense of humor and we're patient," added Frances, who's called "Frankie" by her spouse, "like 'Frankie and Johnnie,' that song."
Unlike the pair celebrated in song, a quarrel doesn't end in tragedy with the Hersteks.
"Oh, sure, we fight," said Frances.
"She hollers at me, and I holler at her," said John. "We make up in the same day."
It all started when Frances, now 90, was just 16 years old. She'd walk by John's house in Niagara Falls on her way to school.
"I told the guys when I saw her, 'I want to marry her,' " said John. "The way she talked and the way she acted ... it just caught my eye."
As for Frances, "Well... He had a motorcycle, and he had a car."
"I used to go about 80 (on the motorcycle)," John reminisced with a sly grin. "She'd hit me on the head and say 'Slow down!' "
They dated for three years and planned a blissful wedding when Frances was 19. Trouble was, the Draft Board and Mother Nature had other ideas.
They got married at Holy Rosary Church on a snowy Feb. 7. Right after the ceremony, John had to leave for Buffalo to report to the Draft Board. He remembers his car slid into a ditch on Grand Island. Frances was left with the reception and the guests.
When he finally got back, "I ran to him," said Frances. "The veil fell off and everything," said John.
Last year, the parents of two, grandparents of four and great-grandparents of four were feted on their 70th anniversary at their son's Naples, Fla., condo. A granddaughter from Ohio made a veil. There were T-shirts sporting the original wedding picture, and there was no snow.
"It was like a real wedding," said John. "I could have danced all night," said Frances.
Today, in addition to the senior center activities, the couple still keeps busy. Frances is a volunteer with the St. Johnsburg Volunteer Fire Co. Ladies Auxiliary and works as an election inspector. John has always enjoyed sports and likes to find a quiet corner to read.
"They live a rather austere life, but they do enjoy life," said their son Frank, a Buffalo resident. (Daughter Mary Ann Vissat is a Chicago-area resident.)
Frank thinks the longevity of his parents' marriage might be due to his mother seeing (and relishing) her role as being able to take care of his father. John was the provider, the authoritarian, the father, Frank said.
As for living into their 90s and still being sharp and active, Frank notes that they've had a garden all their lives, eating plenty of fresh produce, and modern "portion control" is the way they always eat. His father swears by cayenne pepper and sleeps with a hat on.
Plus, they've found a good balance between the glass being half empty or half full.
"My mother errs on the half full side," he said.
"I think they've been very, very lucky over the years," said Frank. "We often say there are times when we wonder when they are going to act their age."
"I wouldn't trade him for anybody else," said "Frankie" of her "Johnnie" of 71 years. "He makes me laugh."