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John Harris played the lead role in “Romeo and Juliet” while in college. More than 60 years later, that love story is still playing out — without the tragic ending, of course — with the role of Juliet being played by the love of his life, his wife Lois.
Like Romeo and Juliet, the Sandy Spring couple say that opposites attract, and in the relationship of John and Lois Harris, that thread has woven its way through nearly 65 years of marriage.
The couple, residents of Brooke Grove Retirement Village’s independent living cottages, will celebrate their 65th anniversary on Sept. 5.
During the month when love is heralded, the couple shared their own story that began when they were teenagers.
John and Lois grew up in different suburbs of St. Louis, Mo. They came from families of modest means, so when they began college at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., they both worked in the cafeteria to earn free room and board. Lois ran the dishwasher and John was a server.
It was there that they first met, when John was 18 and Lois was 17.
Because his last name was Harris and her maiden name was Henry, they ended up sitting next to one another in some of their classes.
Early on, John was chosen to play the lead role in “Romeo and Juliet” in his drama class.
“I had no experience, but was just young and blonde,” he said. “It may have been a tragedy in most peoples’ eyes, but I think I turned it into a comedy.”
What Lois remembers is John’s co-star, who she recalls was “gorgeous and blonde.”
“I was jealous of her because I always thought I was so ordinary looking,” she said. “Seeing John kiss her really burned me.”
They continued to date through freshman year and John broached the subject of marriage.
“She was a hard one to convince,” he said. “She said ‘no’ about 12 or 15 times.”
Lois was, and is to this day, the more practical one.
“I liked his looks,” she said. “I just wasn’t sure how we could manage with so little money.”
One time when they were returning from a date, they rushed to get her back to the dormitory by curfew. When they arrived with five minutes to spare, Lois told John she needed to “go study.”
He misunderstood her and thought she said she needed to “go steady.” He took off his class ring and handed it to her.
“I was astounded because it was not something I expected,” Lois said.
As they reminisced about the early days of their relationship, they looked into each other’s eyes and smiled.
“We really had fun, didn’t we?” Lois asked. “We’ve had a lot of happy times. We laugh at each other and we laugh at ourselves. Laughter is so good for everyone.”
Eventually, knowing that they were going to get married, Lois opted not to return to college and lived at home while working to save money.
They were engaged in September 1951 and got married September 1952.
“We were engaged about a year too long,” Lois said with a grin. “There was a lot of temptation.”
During their engagement, they met with their Baptist minister for counseling. The regular pastor was on vacation, so they met with the associate pastor.
“After meeting with us, his bottom line was that we shouldn’t get married,” John said.
“He thought that since I had given up going to college, he would outgrow me,” Lois said. “People from Missouri are stubborn. I didn’t like being told that.”
After marriage, they returned for John to finish his degree in political science, living in a small trailer, only as wide as a double bed. Lois worked and John did handyman jobs to make ends meet.
He expected to be drafted after college, but had injured himself while working on a job.
“I checked with all the branches of the military and no one wanted me,” he said.
“I wanted you,” Lois said, with a twinkle in her eye.
By then, she was expecting their first child and they left St. Louis to come to Washington, D.C., for John to attend graduate school at George Washington University.
He worked at department store Woodward & Lothrop during the days and went to school in the evenings, eventually earning a master’s degree in government and foreign affairs.
John’s career included working for the Central Intelligence Agency and then owning the Cucumber Book Shop in Bethesda. The store originally focused on children’s books, but evolved to specialize in scientific and technical books, which he sold to government libraries.
They had three children — Sharon, born in 1954, Dave, born in 1956, and Mark, born in 1958.
They established their roots in the Twinbrook community of Rockville and joined Twinbrook Baptist Church.
“That has been an important part of our lives and we are still very involved to this day,” said Lois, who fondly describes the friends and relationships that have developed out of their church community.
“That’s another way we are mirror opposites,” John said. “She is outgoing, gregarious and a people person. I am more of a hermit, can work by myself, and like to read and study. Yet in combination, we make a very good couple.”
Once their children were older, Lois returned to college and earned her teaching degree and then a master’s degree in counseling. She spent more than 20 years working for Montgomery County Public Schools before retiring in 1998
After living in Twinbrook for 48 years, they moved to Brooke Grove in 2008.
They have five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Two of their grandsons are engaged and the grandparents have offered some advice, which originally was given to them by Lois’ father, Percy Henry.
“Don’t ever settle for 50/50 because you won’t make it,” Lois said. “Sometimes that is not enough, and you have to be giving enough to accept that sometimes the other person may do all the taking.”
Despite their differences, the couple say they share important similarities.
“Family is the most important thing to both of us,” John said. “We both come from solid families where our parents celebrated their 50th anniversaries. The heritage of loving, caring families has been a tremendous lesson for us.”
Moving to Brooke Grove was also a compromise, since John was used to doing things himself, but Lois was ready to back off on cooking and other chores. They both agree that it has been a good choice.
John and Lois remain devoted to one another, their family and their faith. They have been on about a dozen Habitat for Humanity trips and are planning to celebrate their 65th anniversary with a trip to the Canadian Rockies.
Terri Hogan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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