A union of two for 74 years

Antonia DiRienzo, 96, and her husband Giacomo, 98, dance in their home in Burlington, June 4, 2012. ( DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer )
Antonia DiRienzo, 96, and her husband Giacomo, 98, dance in their home in Burlington, June 4, 2012. ( DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer )
Posted: June 10, 2012

He asked her to dance, and she agreed - then turned him down at the last minute.

Giacomo DiRienzo tried several more times at the community dances they both attended in Burlington, New Jersey, and he finally succeeded in getting Antonia "Donnie" Filliponi into his arms.

That was back in 1934. She has basically remained there ever since.

After a four-year courtship in a country still reeling from the Great Depression, they married on June 12, 1938. Do the math – that means they're about to celebrate a 74th anniversary.

The bride is now 95. The groom is 98.

He still calls her "Hon."

Giacomo, who's better known as Jack, clearly is a man who doesn't give up easily. "I really didn't like him at first – he just didn't impress me," says Donnie, as she has been known since childhood.

But that changed as these children of Italian immigrants found in one another that certain something that, even after 74 years of marriage, defies explanation. "I guess we just had fun together," attempts Donnie.

"She was good-looking – still is," her husband says as he flashes her a smile.

They agree that their similar backgrounds also helped to draw them to one another.

Donnie had seven siblings. So did Jack. Family was first, foremost, everything.

After struggling with a serious hearing loss at age 8 – family lore has it that a bumblebee did the damage – Jack left school at 13, and was a lifelong, self-taught learner.

Donnie never graduated from high school, leaving at 16 to work at a dress and coat factory. Jack had begun a lifetime of hard work even earlier, laboring at a local foundry and later at the Roebling Steel Mill.

Their wedding, Jack loves to explain, was at St. Clare, her family church in Florence, and cost $200 – and that was for the food, the beer, the flowers and the band. "The bridesmaids wore blue, and our bouquets were beautiful," Donnie recalls. She was 21. He was 24.

They went to New York on their honeymoon in 1938. "And I didn't get paid vacation," Jack grumbles. "That wasn't right."

What was right was their marriage, from the very start.

The couple moved into what had been his father's corner grocery store in Burlington, renovated and furnished for under $1,000.

As kids came along – four of them – they moved two doors down the street in Burlington, into the simple but gracious three-story house that has been their haven since 1948.

To supplement his Roebling Steel wages, Jack moonlighted as a part-time painter. His work was so meticulous that customers insisted that he – and only he – do the tricky trim work in their homes.

Donnie stopped working for a spell as those four babies came along. "My real job was to take care of my husband and my family," she says, "and that's the way it was. I think that's the way it should be."

That translated into making hot lunches daily for her children, who attended a local parochial school, and absolutely positively, homemade, full-course dinners for her husband.

To this day, no canned sauce, let alone boxed pasta, has ever found its way into Donnie's pantry.

Feeding guests well and often was - and is – a priority for this spry hostess. On a recent visit, the writer and photographer were fed homemade biscotti and blueberry muffins, under the keen scrutiny of Donnie DiRienzo, who may be a bit reserved beyond it, but in her small, tidy kitchen is the reigning queen.

In their married life, the couple has been through every defining American moment together.

FDR, they insist, was the best American president. Air travel changed the world more than anything else. And World War II – a war Jack couldn't fight in because of his hearing loss - was the most special time in this country they love with a fierce loyalty.

" The whole country sacrificed," says Donnie. "We were behind that war 100 percent," says Jack. And they both look a bit wistful as they remember the rationing of food and gasoline, and the loved ones "over there."

They miss a neighborhood in which no door was locked, and a "formal visit" consisted of walking into somebody's home and announcing yourself without benefit of phoning – or planning – ahead.

"Our generation never had much in the way of material things," says Donnie. "But that was fine."

"We had it made. Good friends. Good food. Good neighbors and neighborhoods," says her husband.

And yes, they had each other.

These two don't need fancy words to describe what they have meant to each other. They interact in non-verbal ways: a touch on the arm, a smile, the way Donnie, admittedly the union's "accommodator," yields to Jack, and how he gently teases her about how she never has anything to wear despite a closet full of clothes.

They are committed to cherish and nourish each other, to stand united and not become a burden to others.

Two of their adult children, Nicholas DiRienzo and Jackie Murphy, both of whom live nearby, marvel at how devoted – and independent - their nonagenarian parents are.

"Their house has only one bathroom, and it's on the second floor. The laundry area is in the basement. But they take care of the house, one another and yes, they still worry about us, their ‘children,' even though we're all now past middle age," says Murphy.

But their faces change when Jack and Donnie talk about the greatest crisis in their long marriage. Back in 1998, their youngest child, daughter Mary Gloria, was killed in a California automobile accident. She was 48 years old. It was, they agree, the worst time in their lives.

"But we made it through together– and because of our faith," says Donnie who is deeply religious and an almost daily churchgoer. Jack goes with her on Sundays.

Inevitably, people ask these longtime lovers what makes a good marriage. Again, their answers are simple.

"Respect," Jack says. "Living the Ten Commandments," says Donnie.

And kindness.

She sees to it that his food is piping hot because Jack DiRienzo is serious about eating hot food. He sees to it that his vegetable and flower garden thrives. Lettuce – and a perfect rose – were presented by Jack to Donnie on a recent spring afternoon.

And then there's dancing. Not "Dancing With the Stars" hoopla. The real thing.

At 95 and 98, these "old smoothies" go out dancing twice a month. They execute a lovely fox trot, a graceful waltz, a mean jitterbug. Donnie is a line-dance leader wherever she goes, and Jack can "get down" for a mean Twist.

Their favorite song of all time?

"May I Have This Dance For the Rest of My Life?"

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