Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Love goes distance after loss
MILESTONES: THIS MARRIAGE IS GOLDEN
By CATHY DYSON
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Mildred and Dave Thomas remember having their doubts when a matchmaker tried to put them together.
She was 33 and living in Colorado, and he was 41 and stationed in Arizona with the Air Force. Both
had been widowed. They had four young children between them, and neither was sure the timing
But as Mildred and Dave came to discover, they had more in common than not. They shared the same moral values and beliefs about raising kids.
Eight months after they met, they took a leap of faith and got married, even though some “must have thought we were out of our minds,” Dave said.
The couple, who live in Spotsylvania County, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary Aug. 2.
They didn’t go on a cruise or have an elaborate party. They enjoyed a potluck dinner with their blended family, which has grown to 33 people and four generations.
“We are so grateful for our family,” Mildred said, “and that we all love each other.”
HEALING BROKEN HEARTS
The matchmaker was “one of those women who can’t keep her nose out of everybody’s business,” Dave said.
She was his sister and lived in the same Colorado town as Mildred. She persisted until both agreed.
It was January 1962. Dave’s wife had died unexpectedly in surgery two years earlier, leaving behind their young daughter.
Dave, whose little girl was then 5, wasn’t so sure he wanted to get involved with the mother of three boys, ages 5, 8 and 10.
Mildred’s husband had died after a long battle with diabetes.
Mildred and Dave quickly discovered the similarities they shared, after they sat at her kitchen table and talked for hours.
“Both of us had lives that we thought were going to be like that forever, and all of a sudden, everything was different,” Mildred said.
Things changed again when the two united. Decades later, Dave’s daughter would sum it all up in a letter to Mildred on her 80th birthday.
“You made a family out of the tattered remnants of two,” Terri Beam wrote to the woman who’s been her mother almost all her life. “You helped heal broken hearts, and you always made us feel secure.”
THE FAMILY RESEMBLANCE
The Air Force had something to do with the whirlwind romance.
While Dave and Mildred were dating, he learned he was being transferred to Montgomery, Ala., which would be out of range to see Mildred.
“I didn’t want to take any chances on her getting a better offer,” Dave said.
After marriage, the two immediately adopted each other’s children.
Dave went to Alabama and rented a farmhouse for the blended family, and Mildred drove across country with four kids and two dogs.
It wouldn’t be their first—or last—military move. Dave, who was a fighter pilot in World War II and then photographed potential bombing targets over Berlin, spent 24 years on active duty with the Air Force.
Five years after that trip to Alabama, Dave was assigned to Germany, and Mildred packed up to go overseas.
This time, there were five children; Dave and Mildred had a son, Jeff, who was a baby when the family moved to Europe.
Dennis, the second of Mildred’s sons, remembered how scary it was to pick up roots the first time. He later came to see the “world experience” the military service afforded.
Terri had a different kind of fear.
“I was terrified of having three brothers,” she said, even though Tom, the third brother, got picked on the most.
He is six months younger than Terri. She remembers the odd looks people gave when she told them their age difference.
Eventually, people came to see and believe what they wanted, Dave said. Mildred regularly was told how much she and Terri looked alike. And when one school official found out Dave was the father of one of the boys, he said he should have known it by the family resemblance.
‘IT WAS GOING TO WORK’
Children and adults alike made adjustments and got used to one another. Mildred’s older boys were good athletes, and Dave proudly remembers the reaction he heard when the boys, from Colorado, took on their new counterparts in Alabama.
A principal told him “those Yankee boys” made the Southern students look like their muscles were made of butterfat.
During a recent interview at the Thomas home, none of those gathered could remember the kids, even as angry teens, saying they wouldn’t listen because the mom or dad wasn’t their biological parent.
“I don’t remember even thinking that,” Terri said.
Likewise, when Jeff came along—and was 10 years younger than Tom—everyone considered him a full-blooded brother, Dave said.
All the children learned early on that, when their parents said they would do something, they meant it, Dennis said. Their marriage vows were no different.
“I think Dave and I felt very strongly that we had made a commitment,” Mildred said.
“And that it was going to work,” Dave added.
‘WE ARE VERY GRATEFUL’
The Thomases want readers to know this story wasn’t their idea. They don’t consider the events of their lives newsworthy in any way.
Celie Thomas, the wife of Dennis, called The Free Lance–Star because she thought otherwise.
She’s watched the way Mildred has fought cancer three times—twice in the breast and once in a lung, even though she never smoked—and how Dave had adjusted to his loss of sight from macular degeneration.
The way the two dealt with whatever life handed them—and kept on going—has convinced younger generations they can persevere, too, she said.
“I just can’t begin to tell you how many people they have inspired,” Celie said.
What’s even more amazing, Celie said, is how everyone in the family likes one another. Unlike gatherings she’s seen among other families, there’s never bickering or bad blood, not even when the topic turns political.
Terri and the wives of her four brothers have their own club, called SILs, for sisters-in-law. They shop and spend weekends together, wearing shirts that say: “What happens with the SILs stays with the SILs.”
When Mildred and Dave hear about how well their blended family gets along, he smiles, and she says simply: “We are very grateful.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425