Grace: Couple, celebrating 70 years of marriage, found a love that has lasted a lifetime

Maurice and Marian Steier walk down the aisle at St. John Catholic Church on the Creighton University campus after renewing their vows on May 1, their 70th wedding anniversary. The couple were joined by their eight children and many of their 30 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.

The photo is so old that Maurice is afraid it will crumble if he removes it from his wallet.

But daughter Sue does it anyway, carefully sliding out the thumbnail-sized picture of her mother, Marian.

Just 19 when that picture was taken back in 1942, Marian's dark hair is long and lush. Her lips are full and dark. Her big Bette Davis eyes shine.

Marian Mahon, a young Mutual of Omaha employee, had given Maurice Steier, a young pharmacy student at Creighton University, that photograph.

And Maurice, now 92, has carried it with him ever since.

He carried it in his suit pocket to the altar at St. John Catholic Church on Creighton University's campus, where he and Marian got married in an 8 a.m. ceremony attended by a handful of relatives in 1943.

He carried it to both coasts as he trained for the U.S. Navy before shipping out for war duty in the South Pacific.

He carried it to pharmacies he owned, first in Iowa and finally at Immanuel Medical Center, where he still works.

And he carried last week it to a banquet room at Creighton, where he and Marian and their eight children and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who could be there celebrated an anniversary. Their 70th.

Maurice and Marian stood by the white, tiered wedding cake as he pulled out his wallet to look for the photograph.

“Oh,” said Marian, 90, a little surprised. “Such a picture.”

The journey of that photograph tells the story of a marriage unusual in its longevity.

Few married couples make it to their 70th anniversary.

How rare is it?

Of all the married couples in the nation in 2011, 39 percent had been married for 25 years, says local census guru David Drozd.

Seven percent had made it to their 50th.

And 0.01 percent had been married for 70 years.

It helps to marry young, as the Steiers did in 1943. Maurice was 22 and Marian was 20. It helps to have good health, as they both say they do. Maurice works daily at the pharmacy he started inside Immanuel. Marian goes line-dancing every Monday and wears heels around the house.

And it helps to marry right. Maurice is German and strait-laced. Marian is Irish and outgoing. Their differences seemed to complement rather than grate on each other. They shared the same values. Neither remembers arguing, something daughter Sue Steier is quick to reinforce: “We never heard them fight.”

It's not that their life together was always smooth. They endured separation during war, a miscarriage and the stresses and long hours of running a pharmacy, not to mention raising seven sons and a daughter.

The couple met at a long-gone cafe called Mary's that once stood west of Creighton. Marian, a Ponca, Neb., native who was prom queen and valedictorian, wanted out of her small town.

She landed in Omaha and went to Mary's for lunch. Maurice, of Whittemore, Iowa, was a farm boy who begged his parents to let him go to college and came to Creighton to study pharmacy. He worked at Mary's, waiting tables.

Maurice noticed Marian. Marian noticed Maurice.

They dated for about a year and then, at a university formal at the old Fontenelle Hotel, Maurice Steier proposed to Marian Mahon. She was wearing a new dress. It was her 20th birthday. He had orders from the Navy to go to war.

They married three months later, on May 1, 1943. So many couples were doing the same during this period of World War II that the doors at St. John Church seemed to be constantly revolving.

The reception was breakfast at the Paxton Hotel. Marian's father had just died, and her newly widowed mother came. But her brother, in the Army, couldn't get leave. Maurice's father had to tend the farm, so his mother and some of his younger siblings came. Then it was a one-night honeymoon at another hotel and a one-bedroom apartment in a house where they had to share the single bathroom with others.

Maurice was able to defer his service by a year because so few pharmacists were available to staff hospitals that he was deemed more necessary in Omaha.

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The couple, joined by Marian's mother and their new baby, Jim, then moved to Boston and San Diego while Maurice got his Navy training.

When he went to sea, Maurice's job was to read coded messages for Adm. Dewey Struble, who commanded a fleet in the South Pacific.

Handwritten letters that seemed to take forever to arrive were the only way to communicate. When the owner of his hometown drugstore in Iowa wrote Maurice to say he would sell his business to the young lieutenant, Maurice wrote back that he might come home in a body bag.

But when he did come back, greeting Marian in Oakland, Calif., he bought that pharmacy, and then in 1950 sold it to buy one at 24th and Fort Streets in Omaha.

The family grew, as did Steier Pharmacy. Maurice worked 12-hour days, breaking only on Sundays for Mass and visits to his folks' farm. An avid pilot, he bought his first Cessna, in part, to save drive times when visiting relatives or traveling. Marian, meanwhile, ran the house.

They backed up each other on child rearing and their belief in education: All eight children graduated from Creighton.

Fast-forward to a rainy Wednesday at Creighton, where the couple stood once again before a priest and promised each other to be true.

They looked like giddy, nervous kids. Marian clutched Maurice's hand — tightly. Their voices shook as they read their vows. They walked down the aisle afterward, beaming in triumph.

Son Jim Steier, whose own marriage ended too soon with his wife's death, told them they did it right. That they gave an example to their children, to their 30 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.

I sat at their kitchen table a few days later with their daughter, Sue, and asked a single question: How did they keep their marriage going?

Maurice smiled. Marian kind of shrugged.

“You don't give up,” Maurice said.

And you carry a simple reminder of whom you love.

Maurice opened his wallet to that black-and-white photograph of young Marian.

“I carried it forever,” he said. “I didn't want her to get away.”

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