Celebrating 75 years together

By CK Wolfson - September 28, 2006

In 1931, Herbert Hoover was president, Adolph Hitler was rising to power in Germany, and the 102-floor Empire State Building was completed, becoming the world's tallest building, The Star Spangled Banner was named the country's national anthem, and on Oct. 1, in a double ring ceremony, Constance E. Downs and Alpha Freeman Leonard Jr. were married in the living room of her parents' Franklin Street house in Vineyard Haven. A reception with cupcakes and punch followed.

"We get along very well," 95-year-old Connie Leonard says, reaching out a slender arm to grasp the hand her husband extends to her.

"We are quite fond of each other," Freeman Leonard, 97, agrees. "We're very flexible with each other, and we have lived compatibly through many lives."

Connie and Freeman Leonard. Photo courtesy of the Leonards
Connie and Freeman Leonard sharing a chair in 1944. Photo courtesy of the Leonards

Just that. No secret formula or list of rules to explain the success of their 75-year marriage. But the reasons surround them, staring from frames on the walls and tabletops; generations of family whose ethic of diligence, hard work, and strong Baptist faith established a strong foundation.

Their daughter, Cynthia Schilling, who lives nearby, brings boxes of clippings and photo albums into the living room where her parents sit summoning memories from their vast and rich recollections.

Freeman Leonard, whose grandfather, James D. Phinney, was captain of the coastal schooner Estelle Phinney (named after his mother), that ran coal and lumber between Norfolk, Virginia, and Boston, moved to the Island from Harvard as a child because, having had polio, the ocean air was thought to be necessary for his health. His father became the principal of the Tisbury School.

Mr. Leonard, a garage mechanic who served in the Air Force, 63rd squadron in Panama, has photographs he took of Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis, from 1929 at France Field.

Smartly dressed and distinguished, with an alert and thoughtful expression, Mr. Leonard reviews his varied career. It includes working at the shipyard, and for R.M. Packer delivering kerosene, running the movie projectors at the Island theaters, and for almost 20 years, building plane and ship models at Van Ryper's model shop, which were used by the Department of Defense during World War II.

"I never had to look for a job," he says proudly. "They always came along."

Connie Leonard, former Vineyard Haven librarian (1930s) and for years employed at Mosher's Photo Service, has an Island ancestry that traces back to the 1600s and Narragansett tribe. Her father Howard Downs, partnered with his brother-in-law, Paul Bangs, was the meat cutter who often took her along when he made the all-day trip up-Island to deliver meat. "It was a social event," she recalls. "Uncle Crosby Crocker" was the Gay Head lighthouse keeper and she would help him clean and light the beacon.

Connie and Freeman Leonard. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Connie and Freeman Leonard in their Vineyard Haven home. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Her smile is steady as she recounts all the farm animals she and "Freem" used to keep at their Franklin Street home after the Depression ("chickens in the cellar"), and how she would can the many fruits and vegetables they grew on their property.

"One thing that was good," Mr. Leonard says, "if I wanted something, I could build it." In 1972, he became Tisbury's first full-time building/zoning inspector. He served as warden of elections, and on the school committee, the town finance board and the Council on Aging. "Everything I wanted to do, I just did it," he says.

With eyes sparkling, his wife watches her husband as he speaks. Wearing the dress she wore for church earlier this morning, with its pale blue Delft-like pattern, her white hair carefully coifed, there is an almost girlish shyness, a fragile gentility about her as she offers her recollections with gestures and animation. She keeps one hand affectionately on her visitor's arm.

Freeman Leonard. Photos courtesy of the Leonards
Freeman Leonard, an employee of Van Ryper's model shop beginning in 1934, makes final adjustments to a scale model oil drilling barge. Photos courtesy of the Leonards
They recall memories with a binding fondness: their love of travel; the Depression, which they think of as good years because of the equalizing affect they had on the Islanders; their children Cynthia and Peter, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Their memories include sledding down New York Avenue to the harbor, buying one dollar weekly special dinners at Bangs's Market. As Mrs. Freeman turns the pages of a photo album, she pauses at a photograph of herself, "That was lavender," she says of one of the dresses she wore, and makes similar observations as the pages are carefully turned.

The couple share experiences generously. Listening to them is listening to the history of the Island, its pastimes and businesses. That they have been shared adds a patina of tenderness to the nostalgia. He anticipates her thoughts and gets up to look for a picture that will illustrate her point. After 75 years together, it is possible it is he who makes her seem girlish, and she who supports his distinguished air.

Everyone is invited to celebrate the Leonard's 75th anniversary at an open house at the First Baptist Church Parish House in Vineyard Haven, Sunday, October 1, at 2 pm. In lieu of gifts, donations may be made in their honor to the First Baptist Church building fund, P.O. Box 2787, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.