I wrote this last summer for our family newsletter, but thought it worth repeating as Valentine’s Day approaches. — BRD
One summer when I was about eight years old, I was at my grandparents’ house for a visit. It must have been their anniversary. Granddaddy jokingly told me my grandmother had been “a forward young woman.” He said they got engaged after she plopped down in his lap in his office at UGA and demanded to know when he was going to marry her. Grandmom was horrified by this account, and adamantly denied Granddad’s version. I asked what had really happened.
Here’s the story, as I remember it: Fielding Dillard Russell and Virginia Boyce Wilson met as students at the University of Georgia. She was an undergraduate working on a degree in physical education, and he was a graduate student working on a degree in English literature. One day, she went by her English professor’s office to turn in a paper. When she arrived, she found two men in the office. One was her professor. The other was Fielding, her professor’s office mate. She told me that she thought he was attractive right away.
The attractive guy my grandmother fell for.
I don’t know what transpired in the office that day, but one Friday not long after, Fielding and his roommate at UGA offered to drive Virginia home to Duluth to visit her family. There was a drenching rain storm that evening. When they slid down the muddy drive into her family’s yard, Virginia rushed inside to beg her father not to invite Fielding and his roommate to spend the night.
I know, I know. Why not? There was an awful storm outside! Her reason? Because other boys had driven her home before, and after spending the night, came out of the guest bedroom rumpled and dirty, with greasy hair and BO. She told me that she didn’t want to see Fielding like that. I’m pretty sure she didn’t explain all of this to her father. He probably thought she particularly disliked this young man, instead of the opposite. But he did as she asked, and didn’t invite the boys to stay.
My grandfather then picked up the story, telling me that he and his roommate ended up stuck in a muddy ditch somewhere between Duluth and Athens. Leaving the car, they finally made it back to their dorm close to sunrise, covered in mud and soaked to the skin.
But Virginia didn’t see the handsome prince looking like a frog, and so their courtship continued. After Fielding completed his master’s, he took a job teaching high school in Monroe, GA. Virginia remained at UGA to complete her undergraduate degree, and they kept the postmaster busy delivering letters between Athens and Monroe. Eventually, Fielding again made the trip to the Wilson home in Duluth, this time to ask Donald Wilson for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Donald must have said yes, but Grandmom and Granddad never did tell me exactly what happened when he asked her to marry him. Granddad stuck to his story, and Grandmom just pressed her lips together and shook her head.
Fielding and Virginia were married at the small Presbyterian church in Duluth, Ga., on Aug. 3, 1931, a typically broiling hot north Georgia summer day. Granddaddy told me how he and his twin, William, climbed in through the window of the minister’s office so they could reach their positions at the front of the church without walking up the aisle in front of the wedding guests. Of course, they could have arrived early and entered the minister’s office the normal way before any guests were seated, but where’s the fun in that?
Fielding and Virginia honeymooned in Virginia Beach, Va., driving there in William’s car, which he lent them as a wedding present. After the honeymoon, they moved to Monroe, both teaching high school there for a year. Fielding applied for a job at South Georgia Teacher’s College in Statesboro, Ga., and was thrilled to be hired, especially as Virginia was now expecting their first child. They moved into a boy’s dormitory on the college campus, where they were dorm parents to young men studying at SGTC.
Virginia began her career as a teacher in Bulloch County elementary schools, and Fielding started his career as a professor of English literature at SGTC, which grew into Georgia Southern College and eventually, Georgia Southern University. And while being dorm parents provided them with room and board, there were drawbacks, at least to Virginia’s mind. Virginia told me that she knew the students were taking bets on what day the baby would be born. She prayed she wouldn’t go into labor at night, when all the boys would be in their rooms, gleefully waiting to see who won the pool.
Fielding Jr. was born on Oct. 14, 1932. (I don’t know who won the pool.) Fielding and Virginia moved out of the dormitory the next summer, and rented a small house near campus. William Don followed on May 3, 1935, then Richard IV on July 14, 1941. Then finally! A daughter, also named Virginia, was born on Nov. 28, 1946, which happened to be Thanksgiving Day that year.
The year Richard was born, Fielding and Virginia had managed to save enough money to build a house at 12 West Kennedy Street, within walking distance of the college campus. A contractor built it using plans Virginia drew herself. The house included a guest room and bathroom on the first floor, and three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a study for Granddad on the second floor. The downstairs guest room hosted many relatives over the years, including a pregnant Aunt Caroline (one of Granddad’s sisters) and a young Raymond Jr. while Raymond Sr. was posted overseas during WWII.
It all sounds so wonderful and easy when told like that. But Fielding and Virginia married during the Depression, and were raising small children during the shortages and rationing of World War II. Fielding Jr. kept their one automobile held together with twine and his inherent mechanical genius. After Richard was born, Fielding Sr. spent long periods away from home working on his PhD at George Washington University. Any one of these things could have stressed a marriage to the breaking point. But Fielding and Virginia not only persevered; they thrived. Eventually, the house at 12 West Kennedy Street became a second home to Fielding and Virginia’s nine grandchildren. The house has been a constant in a life of moving (a side effect of being preacher’s kids) for me, Rusty, Jamie, Patience and William, as well as Bill Jr., Shannon and Aimee. Margo and Virginia lived there while Virginia worked on her master’s and EdD, and the rest of us visited for weeks at a time during the summers, giving our parents much-needed breaks.
We didn’t see it that way at the time, of course. It never crossed our minds that our parents might be chortling with glee as we waved good-bye to them from the back window of Granddaddy’s car. Our grandparents loved having us, and we loved going. To us, Statesboro was a magical place, with stairs to slide down, a large yard to play hide-and-seek in, magnolia trees to climb, and the country club pool, where we splashed and swam while Granddaddy played tennis. Sometimes, we took tennis lessons there, and even attempted to hit a few back over the net with Granddad.
My childhood memories include Granddaddy reciting Chaucer or Shakespeare at the dinner table, and reading sonnets he had written Grandmom. I remember visiting Grandmom’s fifth-grade classroom, which was full of snakes and turtles and other creatures, something I now realize is fairly ironic as she didn’t allow animals inside her house. I remember receiving postcards from around the world after they retired and began traveling in Europe, both on their own and sometimes with Uncle Jeb and Aunt Ala Jo. They also made a trip to the Far East, visiting one of Granddad’s former students in Japan and Richard in Thailand.
Virginia and Fielding were married for 62 years. Fielding died on Feb. 15, 1993, two weeks after having a stroke. Virginia lived for 15 more years, dying on April 22, 2008, a week after her 97th birthday. And they weren’t just married for 62 years. They enjoyed being married to each other for 62 years. They disagreed on things, yes, but they adored each other.
When I was a child, that adoration and mutual respect seemed as natural as breathing to me. I now realize that doesn’t always happen when two people marry. Sadly, there are some people who go through their entire lives without ever witnessing that kind of love. Yes, they had disagreements. He loved Chinese food. She hated it. He drove like a maniac. She was more cautious. He believed in large, extravagant gestures. She was frugal. He thought bathing too often dried the skin. She believed daily baths were a must. His study looked like a tornado had gone through it, depositing books, papers and clothing in random places, from the tops of the bookshelves to under the couch. The rest of the house was as neat as a pin. He thought every home needed a dog – or two. She wasn’t really a fan, and didn’t allow animals inside.
Even as a child, I knew these things about them. I saw them disagree, compromise, work through problems. But I never saw them be rude to each other.
At the funeral home visitation for Virginia, one of the photos displayed was of my grandparents on the beach at Hilton Head, holding hands and smiling into each other’s eyes. It’s a candid photo, taken by a child or grandchild, and they’re not just smiling – they’re really smiling. They’d been married nearly 60 years at the time. I was examining the picture when daughter Virginia (my aunt) walked up. Virginia said, “Look at the way he’s looking at her.” I replied, “Look at the way she’s looking at him!” and Virginia said, “They ruined it for the rest of us, didn’t they?”
I laughed, because I knew exactly what she meant. Not everyone gets that kind of partnership when they marry. They weren’t just husband and wife – Fielding and Virginia had the kind of love Disney just attempts to portray. So yes, we Fielding Russells have very high expectations of our significant others. It’s because we know that kind of partnership does exist in real life, not just fairy tales. We witnessed it in Virginia and Fielding, and all of us are richer for having been included in the warmth of their love.