Juxtaposed somewhere between Victoria’s Secret and the Hallmark Channel in the cultural consciousness, Valentine’s Day has a way of being presented in idealistic, if often fantastic and unrealistic terms every time it pops up on the calendar.

Yes, love can be deeply passionate, thrilling and sensual, but there are other facets of the bond, such as companionship, patience and understanding — evidenced, rarely with more clarity, then in the stories from men in their golden years whiling away time at The Center in north Brainerd. A choice few shared decades of stories, lessons and insights during a chat with the Dispatch Thursday, Feb. 13, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, 2020.

Bill Fortune III, a retired volunteer at The Center and a resident of Brainerd, already had a failed marriage in the rearview mirror at the spry age of 21. One night in the ‘70s, he was working in his father’s nightclub in Fargo, North Dakota, when an attractive young woman passing time at the bar caught his eye.

“I turned to the bartender and said, ‘You know who that is?’ And he said, ‘I’ve gone out with her a few times.’ ‘That's not what I asked you. I said do you know who she is and he wouldn't give me her name. So I walked over and introduced myself,” Fortune said. “At this point, I could say the rest is history. … Fifty-seven years, so much to say, but it comes down to love, right?”

That’s 57 years of history. That’s 57 years of highs and lows, challenges to triumphs, from job to job, house to house, moving from North Dakota to southern Minnesota to northern Minnesota, with two sons, then six grandchildren and then seven great-grandchildren to top it off. Having married at age 22 and experienced all that together, Fortune was visibly moved when he declared his wife Marlowe the love of his life, with a gorgeous head of snow-white hair and “nimble as a gazelle.”

“My wife is who made me,” Fortune said. “She’s the one that changed me. But the lessons that came along in life were to not take things too seriously. And if they're serious enough to worry about, take care of it. Sometimes things hit you from the side. And both of you get the hit and you don't know quite how to deal with them. But our faith has carried us basically through where we've been.”

“That doesn't mean we don't disagree,” he added with a wry smile. “We never take anything to bed and keep it overnight. We leave it at the doorstep or at the entry to the bedroom. And we wake up the next day treating — no matter what our argument was — treating each other just the way we had the morning before. We also have some wonderful days. We've been able to experience life in completeness.”

Around a pool table, three gentlemen — Jack Wheeler of Brainerd, as well as Duwayne Matthews and Lynn Zimbelman, both of Baxter — squared off over billiards, dishing out wisdom and wisecracks at varying turns.

Duwayne Matthews shoots pool Thursday, Feb. 13, at The Center in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Duwayne Matthews shoots pool Thursday, Feb. 13, at The Center in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

After 38 years of marriage, Matthews said it’s about both people making an effort to keep romance and affection alive — though, he noted, people approach life in different ways and some, like his wife, prefer spontaneity and living in the moment over the materialistic pomp and fanfare of traditional Valentine’s Day festivities.

Case in point, Matthews and his wife were married on Feb. 13 — their wedding anniversary, her birthday and the day before Valentine’s Day. With that in mind, earlier in his marriage Matthews once concocted a plan to commemorate all three while his wife was at work.

“I would order bouquets, and it's one set for anniversary sent up to her. Then, later in the day, another set would come up for her (birthday). And then later on another set would come up for Valentine's Day. I did it a couple times,” Matthews said. “And then she got mad, she says: ‘You're just wasting your money, so stop doing that!’”

Now, he said, they’re happy to have a “Driving Miss Daisy” arrangement — namely, with Matthews at the wheel, his wife in the passenger's seat, and the open road before them, perhaps with an occasional stop at a restaurant for kicks.

Lynn Zimbelman chats Thursday, Feb. 13, at The Center in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Lynn Zimbelman chats Thursday, Feb. 13, at The Center in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

From Zimbelman’s perspective, his 45 years of marriage has been an evolution, where the nonessential things of life have been gradually stripped away to reveal what is vital and valuable to a fulfilling long-term relationship.

“No matter what, she’s always right,” Zimbelman said with a chuckle, then on a more somber note: “Over time, a long time, you become more best friends than anything else. As you get older, everything else fades away. We moved up here a couple years ago, away from family and friends, and it was hard for a while. So, you lean on each other. You depend on each other, and I think my marriage is stronger for it.”

Jack Wheeler talks Thursday, Feb. 13, at The Center in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Jack Wheeler talks Thursday, Feb. 13, at The Center in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Much the same was echoed by Wheeler, who — 90 years old, a veteran of 60 years of marriage — described his relationship with his wife as one that’s constantly in flux, caught up in the sweeping changes of the century and the growing pains of two people very different from the people they were in the ‘50s, ‘70s, ‘90s and so on.

“Everything changes. Life changes. You change. She changes. The world changes — it becomes faster and faster, more difficult and more complicated. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s not,” Wheeler said. “You have to change with it, you know?”

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at twitter.com/glbrddispatch.