Barbara and Alden Besse
Barbara and Alden Besse. Photos by Danielle Zerbonne

A golden couple

By Julian Wise - October 11, 2007

When more than 160 people gathered at Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven on October 6 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alden and Barbara Besse, it was a recognition of the commitment the two have made over the years to each other, their community, and the global principles of peace and justice. For the last 18 years, since the Reverend Mr. Besse's retirement from the ministry and the couple's relocation to the Island, the two have been steadfast figures in local movements for social justice and the peace movement.

In the Saturday celebration, the two renewed their vows in front of friends and loved ones. Relatives and former parish members traveled from throughout the northeast to participate in the event. Afterwards, the crowd moved from Grace Church to the rectory lawn to enjoy a buffet luncheon. The large turnout was an affirmation of the scores of lives the Besses have touched over the years through their tireless work on behalf of others.

Alden and Barbara met in Annapolis, Md., when he was a young minister and she was a medical technologist in a laboratory. Barbara was born in South Bend, Ind., and grew up in Washington, D.C., where her father worked in the government. She attended St. Luke's Nursing School and the Franklin School of Arts and Sciences in Philadelphia before settling in the D.C. area as a young adult. Alden was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and grew up in Scarsdale. During prep school he heard the calling towards the ministry and attended seminary in Virginia after graduating from Harvard. After he and Barbara were married they lived in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. They raised three children while he tended to several parishes during his career. Today they are blessed with five grandchildren, ages two through ten.

Barbara and Alden Besse, followed by their grandchildren, Audrey and Jared Besse, and Amanda and Katie Susman
Barbara and Alden Besse, followed by their grandchildren, (from right) Audrey and Jared Besse, and Amanda and Katie Susman, at the 50th wedding anniversary celebration on Oct. 6.

"After we retired, we decided this was the only place to live," Barbara says. Alden had first come to Martha's Vineyard as an infant in 1924 and had spent many summers on the Island. Their son-in-law, a builder, constructed their home on land in Tisbury that had belonged to Mr. Besse's mother. Although he had retired from his formal career, Mr. Besse continued to be an active and visible figure in the community. He served as a pastoral assistant at Grace Church, helped organize the annual CROP Walk, acted as chaplain at the hospital and Windemere, and served on the Peace Council. Barbara volunteered at the hospital and sang in the Martha's Vineyard Community Chorus. Over the years, the Besses have become beloved and vital members of the community who continue to contribute in various ways.

As they reflect on their years together, the two display an affectionate and respectful bond. Speaking in the trained cadences of a preacher, Mr. Besse intones, "It's been a wonderful, growing experience. I don't think I'd be alive if it weren't for Barbara's support and encouragement, taking good care of me."

Nevenka Daniels and Olive Dolby
The golden couple greet well-wishers Nevenka Daniels (left) and Olive Dolby.

While many marriages flounder on the rocks of stress and miscommunication, the two have learned to respect each others' points of view. "We get along well," says Barbara. "We can compromise when necessary."

"She's always reasonable," replies Mr. Besse. "We may not always agree on every last thing, but we'll talk it out. She's reasonable, bright, and fun to be with. She's been a wonderful mother to our children, and a wonderful grandmother."

The decision to renew their vows on their 50th anniversary reflects their view of their marriage as an ongoing journey.

"It gets us in touch with where we've been and were we are," says Mr. Besse. "It gives us insight, hope, and inspiration to continue our marriage and build on our strengths and finesse a few of the weaknesses, get over some, get around some...." Then, laughing with gentle humility, he adds, "I say that because I should be looking in the mirror."

Audrey Besse and Katie Susman
The punch bowl with floating fruit fascinates Audrey Besse (front) and Katie Susman.

The two are touched and delighted at the response to their anniversary. "I am amazed at the number of people who accepted," Barbara says. "We sent a lot of invitations, but I thought, 'Oh, these are just courtesy things, these people aren't going to come.' They keep coming and coming!"

Mr. Besse says the celebration is a reminder of the joys he has received over the years while serving his parishes and communities. "It's been a wonderful thing for me," he says. "Most of my life has been spent with some of the most wonderful people. I can't imagine anything that would have been as fulfilling or developing. It requires all the skills I have and a great many I don't. It's been a wonderful and challenging journey."

Julian Wise is a contributing writer to The Times.