Valentine on 67

Love endures for couple that met in 1945

By Laura Bollin

"Happiness is like jam. You can't spread it out without getting a little on yourself."

That saying is on a sticker outside the door of Mary Jane and Bill Porcelli's apartment at senior living community Smith Village in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood, and it sums up the couple's life philosophy.

The Porcelli's have been married for 65 years, but judging from the way they act around each other one might think they were newlyweds. Mary Jane is constantly complimenting Bill's "good looks" and intelligence, and Bill says Mary Jane is "quite the singer." As for the secret to what makes a marriage last 65 years, Mary Jane said it is simple.

"We promised," Mary Jane said. "Nowadays, people do renewals of vows, and that's stupid. Either you meant it or you didn't. We said, 'until death do us part,' and we meant it."

Bill jokes that it also helps to hide the sharp objects in one's home.

Bill grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, and Mary Jane in Englewood. They met at a USO dance at Navy Pier in 1945, back when the pier was a naval training center and not a tourist attraction.

"It was magic when I saw him across the room, like a spark of light," Mary Jane joked. "He was so cute, guys look different with sailor suits on."

Mary was also impressed that Bill was getting a college education, as he was enrolled at Illinois Tech working toward an engineering degree.

"I told myself I wouldn't ever marry a man without a college education," Mary Jane said. As for Bill, what about Mary Jane caught his eye?

"She was a pretty blonde, and she brought cookies to the dance," he said.

On their first date, Bill asked Mary Jane if she wanted to go out for a malted milkshake, and the rest is history.

Bill was training to be a radio technician in the Navy and shipped out in September 1945, just a few months after he had met Mary Jane. He returned in May.

"We wrote each other all the time," Bill said.

The couple married on Oct. 4, 1947, and moved into an apartment in Hyde Park, next door to Bill's parents.

"Our rent was $60 a month, but we didn't have any money," Mary Jane said. "I was working as a secretary at Illinois Tech, making $20 a week."

Bill was finishing his engineering degree during the day and attending law school at Loyola University at night. He worked as a patent attorney.

The couple raised four children: Cathy, Debra, Tim, and Jim. They also have eight grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Their children share their sense of humor. Once, as a gift, Tim gave Mary Jane and Bill a picture of themselves made to look like the couple in Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic."

Bill paints as a hobby, and his artwork adorns the walls of the couple's apartment at Smith Village. One piece shows the couple's children on the beach at Lake Geneva, another depicts a rainy afternoon at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive in Chicago. One of Mary Jane's favorites is a portrait of her picking seashells off of the beach in Florida.

Along with painting, Bill also plays violin. He's a member of the Southwest Symphony Orchestra, and marketing materials for Smith Village show Bill serenading Mary Jane in the facility's dining room.

The couple has taken about a dozen cruises throughout the world to places including Italy, Ireland, Germany, the Greek Isles, France, Ireland, Belgium and the Caribbean. Bill says he now enjoys having all of his and Mary Jane's amenities at their fingertips.

"We don't travel as much anymore, but [at Smith Village] we play cards, and I still play the violin and paint," Bill said. "Mary Jane sings, and we both act in the Village Players - a drama group here at Smith Village."

With Valentine's Day around the corner, Mary Jane said Bill has done so many romantic things for her that she can't count them.

"There are just too many to choose from," she said.

As for a final piece of advice to keeping a relationship strong, Mary Jane said it is important to relax with each other.

"Don't sweat the small stuff, because in the end, what's the difference?" Mary Jane said. "We have always been happy as far as our lives. We like each other, and we like our life."