One rainy day in October 1962, Don Pfannenstiel got up the courage to ask out a girl by the name of Carolyn Bender.
Pfannenstiel was an assistant engineer at radio station KSTT-AM in Davenport. Bender was busy with her family that day more than five decades ago, but she did agree to a date.
"That was the beginning. After that, it just ...," Carolyn said.
"I always said there was never anyone else because I was always there," Don chimed in.
The Pfannenstiels have been married more than 50 years, are the parents of four adult sons and have 10 grandchildren. They are happy to say that all of their family members live in the Quad-Cities.
Now in their 70s, they have remained relatively healthy over the years. They also are examples of how long-lived married couples may enjoy health benefits not shared by single persons, a conclusion borne out by numerous studies that date as far back as 1858.
"There was never any doubt for me," Don said. "I agree. We had dated others before, but with us we just knew," Carolyn added.
Dr. Nicole Chickris, a family physician at the new UnityPoint Health Trinity clinic in Moline, believes in what she calls the marriage protection theory. Examples of how married people tend to care for one another play out in her practice, she explained:
• Earlier this month, a husband brought in his wife, who, he said, was talking oddly. It turned out the wife had suffered a stroke. "I sent them to the ER," Chickris said.
• A wife came in with her husband for an appointment. He'd been coughing for weeks and she thought it needed to be checked. "He didn't think it was a problem, but it turned out he had pneumonia," Chickris said.
She sees married couples as living longer and also being less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse.
"A lot of people blow off their own symptoms, but a spouse recognizes them," Chickris said.
Don and Carolyn together have lost about 110 pounds in the past three years. That's in addition to the 130 that Don dropped in 1996 after learning that he has type 2 diabetes. They walk and do Zumba at CASI, the Center for Active Seniors Inc., in Davenport. They also have a treadmill and an exercise bike in their home.
They have changed their diets to become healthier, with almost half of all their foods now coming from fresh produce.
"We make a list on weekends of what we'll have during the week," Don said. "We don't make umpteen meals, just about one per day," Carolyn added, noting that they try to avoid prepackaged foods.
Humor is another healthy aspect of the relationship. Don is a jokester, and Carolyn enjoys a good laugh.
"She's a saint for putting up with me for 50 years," he said, adding that he prefers to look at the bright side of life.
That isn't to say there haven't been setbacks. Don has had hip surgery four times, and Carolyn recently underwent shoulder surgery.
"We work together and have a lot of fun," Don said.
Happier, healthier, too
There are many positive health aspects to long marriages, said Dr. Steven Kopp, a licensed mental health counselor as well as a licensed marriage and family therapist with Genesis Psychology Associates in Davenport.
"A spouse is like a 24-hour-a-day accountability partner," he said, adding that a marriage partner can help a person stay on an exercise routine as well as make dietary changes.
Generally speaking, married people have better adherence rates to healthy habits. "If you have a spouse who is supportive, you are much more likely to feel less stress," Kopp said. Specifically, there is less economic stress, and sexual satisfaction levels are higher as well.
Health protections are much stronger for men than for women. "Each partner has a different way to see the benefits of marriage," Kopp said.
Parents of four sons
A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Don Pfannenstiel spent 30 years driving a truck for Wonder Bread. He retired in 2002, before the Davenport factory was closed. Carolyn is a homemaker who also spent 22 years as a Boy Scouts leader.
All four Pfannenstiel sons were heavily into scouting. Each became an Eagle Scout, and all attained Order of the Arrow status. Carolyn says she became "very involved" in the Boy Scouts, which is funny to her because she came from a family of girls.
The couple likes to camp, and they enjoy the Scott County parks. It's a hobby that began with a tent when the children were young, but these days they have a travel trailer.
It's a close-knit family. The boys cooperated on a project 12 years ago to add a four-season room to the home their parents built in 1968. It's a space treasured by the couple.
The Pfannenstiels volunteer as CASI ambassadors. "It's a lot of fun," Don said, adding that he also likes to take tickets and help at CASI events.
But they do take time for themselves. Don is an early riser: He gets the coffee going and begins the household chores.
Carolyn likes to stay up late and gets up later in the morning. "I'll also take off shopping, or something," she said. "I'm not big into cards."
"I shop every couple of years," Don said.
In June 2013, they hosted a 50th-anniversary party. They rented party space, not knowing how many would come.
Some 116 people showed up, and the couple happily got to visit with old friends, relatives and even some of the educators they had known as students as well as parents.
"That made it really special for us," Carolyn said.