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February 12, 2014

Big Love in a Small Town

Sumner marriage still strong after 70 years

LONDON —    LONDON — It is hard to accurately describe the story of Lester and Dora Sumner without using a slightly hackneyed phrase: “Big things have small beginnings.”

    From a modern standpoint, it’s difficult to imagine a 19 year-old coal miner finding his one true love at such a simple, commonplace event like church. It’s hard to picture a 17 year-old girl returning such affections and agreeing to marry. To borrow another cliché, times have changed.

    It is even more pressing to comprehend that this love has endured for 70 years. Things don’t seem to work that way anymore.

    To think that two teenagers from a rural coal mining town – without any formal education – have gone on to have seven children, 18 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren at first seems impossible – but not for Lester and Dora.

    Lester Sumner was born in 1924 in McCreary County. His father and older brother worked in Stearns, Ky., a town built specifically to cash in on Kentucky and Tennessee’s then-fledgling lumber and coal industries. It was only natural that he did too.

    “We didn’t go to school; we went to work,” Lester said. “When I was 18, my dad and older brother took me into the mines. I worked for two years and didn’t like it.”

    Dora can recount a brief stint at high school, but the distance made attendance seem more than a little impractical.

    “I lived way out in the country. I went to high school for a little while, but I had to walk three miles just to catch the bus,” Dora said. “That’s one of many reasons we didn’t get any more education.”

    It was during this time that Lester met Dora Bryant, who was only 16 at the time. Luckily, the Sumners and Bryants were well acquainted, so Lester walking Dora home each week from church was no big deal.

    “They lived about a mile from the church. Of course, I was fortunate enough to have a car, a Model A,” Sumner said. “I’d drive it down to the church, walk her home and walk back to the church to get the car. Her mom wouldn’t allow any car rides.”

    “Times have really changed,” Dora added.

    These walks, referred to as “dates” by Lester and Dora, continued for about a year before the couple married. The marriage was a small affair with only one other couple in attendance – Mark and Jean Sumner, Lester’s cousin and his soon-to-be wife.

    The two couples drove in Lester’s Model A to Jellico, Tenn., to get a two-hour blood test before heading off to Williamsburg to be wed. Soon after, the two couples simply drove back home to McCreary County.

    “I saw on the news the other day that most weddings cost at least $4,400 dollars – some of them go up to $25,000. I suppose we spent less than $10,” Lester said. “We didn’t tell many people that we were getting married. Our parents knew about it – I did talk to her dad about it.”

    No one was present on that day in 1943 knew this was the start of an extraordinary family story.

    Lester worked as a coal miner, had a brief stint in the Army, only to wind up at the Forestry Service for 31 years. Dora spent most of her days at home gardening, canning, sewing – anything that needed to be done. However, most of her time was spent raising the couple’s seven children.

    From those seven children came 18 grandchildren. From those 18 grandchildren came 22 great-grandchildren. Two great-great grandchildren have made their way into the world, adding to the already impressive Sumner legacy.

    “All of our children had a good education. Four of them have master’s degrees, one of them has a doctorate degree,” Dora said. “We’ve got two grandchildren who are into medical school now. They’re going to be doctors. We’ve done pretty good – we’ve been blessed with a family and a roof over our head.”

    Lester was able to retire in 1985, purchasing a motor home not long after. The couple has been able to travel from Mexico to Canada. The two McCreary Countians have been able to traverse from Florida – where they spent a few winters – to the western part of the country. The west has always been a favorite for Lester.

    “One March, we went into Flagstaff, Ariz.,” Lester said. “There was about 6-10 inches of snow. But when we drove over a mountain down into a valley, we only found 70-degree weather.”

    When discussing how they’ve managed to stay together for so long, the couple can only grin. As they look at each other, gazing adoringly, perhaps as they did on a day back in Williamsburg in 1943.

    “There’s more than one thing, in my opinion. I won’t describe love,” Lester said. “But I had feelings for her from day one. I guess that had something to do with it. Marriage is a two-way thing – there’s two people involved. We very seldom use the word ‘my,’ we just don’t use it. It’s ours. If I get out to cut wood, she’s out there cutting wood. When she goes into the kitchen to cook, I’m in there helping her cook.”

    “We’ve always worked together,” Dora added.

    Lester was quick to reference an interview he heard on television. A network was interviewing a 102-year-old man and his 100 year-old wife, married 78 years. When asked what the couple’s secret was, the man could only laugh.

    “He looked at the camera and said ‘Complimise, a lot of complimising,’” Lester said, also laughing.

    It’s a cross between compromising and compli-menting, and Lester said it takes a lot of both.

    The couple’s answers to making a marriage last are simple – perhaps frustratingly simple to truly satisfy the more curious. But they are answers that have been working longer than most people have been alive.

    They are answers that have been valid for 70 years and counting.

 

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