A lifetime of love: Couple celebrates 70th wedding anniversary

Lance Shearer

Bob and Helen Birchell got together with their kids for their anniversary. Sounds nice, although not necessarily newsworthy, but consider: Bob is 96 years old, Helen is 94, and this was their 70th wedding anniversary.

The lovebirds share a kiss. Helen and Bob Birchell celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on Wednesday, and all six of their children came to visit.

The couple had six children, and all of them showed up for the anniversary celebration. Daughter Nancy Brewer lives on Marco Island, where she is a realtor with the McCarty Group at Keller Williams. Her four sisters and one brother came from Connecticut, where the couple raised their family, Vermont, South Carolina and Oklahoma to make for a complete reunion.

Actually, they jumped the gun a little on the date. Helen and Bob married on Feb. 7, 1948, so their anniversary was on Tuesday, but for scheduling reasons, the Birchell “kids,” several spouses and one grandchild, gathered the week before to do their celebrating. In all, 14 family members went to the official anniversary dinner at Pelican Bend on Isles of Capri.

The senior Birchells were full-time residents of Marco Island for eight years before moving to the Beach House in Naples just days before Hurricane Irma struck in September. Nancy’s sister Cindy Gillum, from Mystic, Conn., came down to help them with the move, and ended up staying through the storm and its aftermath.

“It was time to come here and get a little bit of assistance. This was the safest place to be” for the hurricane, said Gillum, “new construction, solidly built, with storm-proof windows.”

Helen Birchell shows a photo from her wartime work at the Pratt & Whitney plant. Helen and her husband, Bob, celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on Wednesday, and all six of their children came to visit.

Her parents pointed out that they had been through hurricanes before, including what they referred to as “the big one,” the Hurricane of 1938 in New England.

“They didn’t even give them names in those days,” Helen said.

The two are card-carrying members of the Greatest Generation. Bob served in the Navy in World War II, on a combat ship in the Pacific Theater, an LST or Landing Ship Tank, as a carpenter’s mate, third class.

“We were in the third wave on Iwo Jima, and took prisoners aboard after the landings,” he said.

After VJ Day, LST 648 went to Tokyo Bay, where “they turned our ship into the post office for the Third Fleet.”

Helen also helped with the war effort, working at the Pratt & Whitney company that turned out aircraft engines.

She was "the first female mailman,” riding around the plant on a big tricycle to make her deliveries, she remembered.

After the war, she used her degree from UConn to become a home economics teacher until she had six babies in 10 years. She later returned as a substitute teacher.

After seven years working for himself as a welder, Bob went back to the Electric Boat Co. in Groton, Conn., where he worked before the war. The company, since acquired by General Dynamics, turns out the U.S. Navy’s submarines, and Bob worked there for 30 years.

In all, the Birchells’ six children, five of them girls, gave them seven grandchildren (four boys, three girls), who in turn have produced six great-grandchildren, all of them girls. One grandson, Brian Birchell, son of Bob and Mariana Birchell of Oklahoma City, came down for the reunion.

Bob and Helen Birchell, center, celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on Wednesday, and all six of their children came to visit.

The 70th anniversary is known as a platinum jubilee, and not many people get to have one, particularly with the entire family attending. They also celebrated Bob’s 96th birthday on Feb. 1.

Nancy Brewer said that with her siblings at or near retirement age, she gets a lot of visits from family, particularly during the winter months.

“They love to come visit,” she said.

“Yeah, we like her better since she moved here,” her sister Cindy joked.

Anyone who is in good health in their mid-90s can expect to be asked what their secret is, and for Bob and Helen Birchell, along with genes and “good luck,”  it’s “good old-fashioned eating, rye bread and butter," Bob said. 

"And a glass of wine – chardonnay,” Helen added.