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Valentine’s pals: Longtime spouses weigh in on matters of the heart |
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Valentine’s pals: Longtime spouses weigh in on matters of the heart

Rex Rutkoski
| Friday, February 13, 2015 8:57 p.m
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
A collection of photos that represent the span of the relationship between Susan and Thayer Geiger of Trafford. The Geiger's will be married 50 years in August.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Susan and Thayer Geiger of Trafford pose for a portrait on Feb. 5, 2015 among a collection of their ancestral photographs. The Geiger's will be married 50 years in August.
Dora, 73, and Dwight Wherry, 81, of Emsworth, met at a grief support group after losing their spouses of many years to illness.
Mike and Sharon Dorbritz of Fallowfield Township, Washington County, went on their first date in spring of 1978 on the Gateway Clipper.
Mike and Sharon Dorbritz of Fallowfield Township, Washington County, have been married almost 33 years.
Donna, 75, and Chuck Connors, 78, of Bear Rocks, Fayette County, shown at Myrtle Beach, have been married five years. They were in-laws for 20 years. He was the best man when she married his brother-in-law. She lost her husband in 2005 and he lost his wife in 2008.
Erik, 42, and Shannon Singleton, 34, of New Kensington are approaching their second wedding anniversary
Patricia DeJeet of Moon and her late husband, Luther, on a cruise.
Harry and Amy Crisman at her Freeport High senior prom in 1988, before they were married,
Harry, 46, and Amy Crisman, 44, of Buffalo Township will celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary April 27. They are shown here in 2008 at Virginia Beach.
Ren and Marushka Steele, of Allegheny Township, were married on Sept. 20, 1980.
Ren and Marushka Steele, Allegheny Twp, Westmoreland County, celebrate their 35th anniversary this year.
Danny and Sue McKnight of Butler Township have been married 38 years. He is former state trooper; and she retired from state police administration office.
Danny and Sue McKnight of Butler Township on their wedding day
Mitch and Quandra Nickols of Lower Burrell in their teen years.
Courtesy of The Rev. Mitch Nickols
Mitch Nickols and his wife, Quandra, attended the Urban Heroes Awards reception in Pittsburgh recently, where he was one of the honorees. The heroes received medallions and are featured in a newly published book.
Maria and Jim Festa of Coulter, South Versailles, were married on Halloween 2014. They were high school friends, married other people, had kids and both ended up divorced. Thirty years later a private message on Facebook brought them together.
Linda and John Poney of Manor Township, Armstrong County, during a walk on their property
Susan and David McDonald of Unity riding in Tetons in 2012. Susan is an adjunct professor of English at Westmoreland County Community College and Pitt Greensburg; David is president of West Penn Power
Tammy and Craig Outly of Baden, who met at North Catholic High. The will celebrate their 25th anniversary in June
Dick & Barbara Skrinjar of Highland Park; married 39.5 years.
Judy and Ed Byers of Carrick will soon celebrate their 49th anniversary.

Two respected Canadian economists have made it official: Happiness really is being married to your best friend.

“The well-being benefits of marriage are on average about twice as large for those whose spouse is also their best friend,” according to John Helliwell, who co-directed a panel studying Social Interactions, Identity and Wellbeing for the Canadian Institute for Advance Research, and Shawn Grover, a policy analyst for the Canadian Department of Finance,

The researchers examined data from two surveys in the United Kingdom and the Gallup World Poll.

“This difference was possibly even larger than we expected,” Helliwell says. “The secret is probably to treat your spouse as though they were a best friend, and that makes the result more likely to follow. This research suggests that friendship comes to infuse and enrich the most successful marriages.”

They found that the perks of that friendship come into play especially strongly during middle age, when there is a tendency to experience a decrease in life satisfaction because of the stress of career and family demands.

“Friendship and marriage should be, and can be, sources of fun,” Helliwell says. “That kind of mutual respect, affection and laughter is the source of stronger friendships and stronger marriages, I suspect.”

On this Valentine’s Day, Pittsburgh-area couples, who consider their spouses their best friends, weigh in on these matters of the heart:

Mike and Sharon Dorbritz

Your best friend is the person in this world that you trust and depend on more than anyone else, Mike Dorbritz says. He met his best friend the second semester of his freshman year at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“We got each other through college and have been best friends ever since,” he says. “I can see her from across a room at a party and can just tell from the look on her face whether she needs rescued, wants to leave or is having the time of her life.”

The couple, both 56, of Fallowfield, Washington County, are approaching their 33rd wedding anniversary on May 1. They have two daughters and three grandchildren.

“I think that we work so well together because we both spend our days trying to make the other person happy,” says Mike.

Revs. Mitch and Quandra Nickols

Rev. Mitch Nickols, 62, is among many not surprised to learn of the study reporting that couples who also consider themselves best friends are much happier than those who don’t.

“Because we live it,” says the senior pastor at Bibleway Church, New Kensington, referring to his marriage of 40 years to wife Quandra Nickols, 61, who also is an ordained minister. “Best friends communicate and cherish relationships for long-term reasons.”

“Quandra always has my best interest at heart and my role is to fulfill as many of her wishes as I can humanly do,” he says. “We’ve been boyfriend and girlfriend for 44 years.”

Danny and Sue McKnight

Danny McKnight of Butler Township can get positively philosophical when it comes to the subject of love. “I personally look upon love as a work of art. Sure, it’s not a Picasso or Rembrandt, but if it is for real it will survive the test of time,” says the retired state trooper has been married to Sue for 38 years.

“I wouldn’t trade the past 45 years with my best friend for any amount of money,” says Danny, 69. “We took the vows seriously and have treasured our time together.”

It is important to have a good sense of humor and be able to laugh together, says Sue, 65. They still chuckle about the time she spent an hour shoveling the driveway to surprise him when he came home from a tiring trip. “He looked at the driveway and said, ‘You piled the snow in the wrong place!’ Guess what, that was the last time I shoveled a driveway for him.”

Amy and Harry Crisman

Amy, 44, and Harry, 46, Crisman of Buffalo Township, Sarver, married at a young age, “Everyone told us it would never work,” says Amy.

“Now it’s 28 years and going strong, because we are not just married, we are soulmates and friends,” she says. “I think your spouse should be your friend first and foremost. We do everything together, we support each other’s decisions and help each other achieve goals.” They have two adult children.

Elevating a partner to “friend” status is about “taking an interest in what the other one is doing, supporting them and becoming a part of what they want to do,” Amy says.

Sue and Thayer Geiger

Thayer Geiger, 68, of Trafford and his wife, Sue, 66, have known each other since childhood. Sue was two days shy of her 17th birthday and Thayer was 18 when they married.

“When we got together in high school, some of our dates were at youth group and youth rallies,” says Sue, who says their religious faith and love of family have been the foundation of their marriage.

“I am married to my best friend,” she says. “We work well together. I can’t say he was much help early in the marriage. He never changed a diaper on two daughters, but he is a wonderful cleaner. His mom taught him well.”

“Sue has always been there for me,” Thayer says. “She also took up golf against her better judgment because I told her I would rather golf with her than someone else. She could outdrive me off the tees, but never did learn to use the irons.”

Maria and Jim Festa

High school friends Maria and Jim Festa, now 50 and residing in Coulter, South Versailles, married other people, had children and later divorced. A private message on Facebook brought them back together 30 years later. They were wed last fall on one of Maria’s favorite holidays, Halloween.

“We have a bond. We click. We can talk for hours about anything and everything,” Maria says. “We laugh, have silly sayings no one understands. We know what the other is feeling by just a look. We ask each other how we look when we are going out, and we make decisions together.”

Her husband, she says, is kind, gentle, loving and, most importantly, makes her laugh on an hourly basis. “He always has my back,” she says.

Jim says he is not surprised about the recent study, “Because best friends are forever,” he says.

Debbie and John Fox

Those close to Debbie, 57, and John Fox , 60, of Penn Hills are surprised if one is seen without the other.

“We do most everything together. There are many instances where we will finish each other’s sentences,” John says. “We get a lot of, ‘Hey, you two, get a room!’ We talk and hold hands.”

“I tell people I was young and innocent before I met John when I was 18,” says Debbie, laughing.

They met working in a theatrical production; she as a painter and props person and he as an actor.

“We have been having fun ever since. We were friends and dated for 12 years, engaged for about 3 and have been happily married coming on 28 years,” she says.

Tammy and Craig Outly

When she was in eighth grade, a neighbor girl on Troy Hill brought Tammy Pappert a photo of her future husband, Craig Outly of Brighton Heights. Tammy gave her a photo to give to him. They both ended up giving the photos back for lack of interest.

“Little did we know, a year later we would meet in the halls of North Catholic High School,” Tammy Outly says.

They dated for about 10 years before they were married. “I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and he stood by me from afar in Boston,” she says. She was completing nursing school at Pitt at the time.

The Baden residents, both 49, observe their 25th anniversary in June.

“We both believe we are each other’s best friend. We do everything together and split the chores down the middle,” she says. “I think my cancer at 23 changed both of us,” she says. “It made us and our families more aware of what is important.”

Dora and Dwight Wherry

It wasn’t love on first sight, but, ooh, that second time it was, says Dora Wherry.

It took the Emsworth couple — she is 73 and Dwight is 81 — almost half a century to find each other, but as their wedding song suggested four years ago, it is “From This Moment On.”

“We are not only best friends, we are our best companions, best soulmates, best lovers. He’s the best man I ever met in my life,” Dora says.

“We’re on the same page all the time,” Dwight says. “It’s surprising we found each other. There’s no getting around that.”

They met at a grief-support group meeting. Dwight lost his wife of 43 years after an extended illness in April 2011. Dora lost her husband of 45 years a month later. Both happened to be in the same hospice group.

“From the very beginning, there’s been nothing but honesty between us, no secrets between us, absolutely none,” Dora says. “We don’t agree on every little thing. We don’t feel we have to. But mostly we do.”

Susan and David McDonald

It may take years for a couple to truly become “best friends,” says Susan McDonald of Unity. “It ain’t easy, as we say in Kentucky, but oh, so worth it in the long run!”

She and husband David, both Kentucky natives, mark their 36th wedding anniversary May 12. Susan, 54, is an adjunct professor of English at Westmoreland County Community College and the University of Pittsburgh Greensburg. Her husband, David McDonald, 55, is president of West Penn Power.

“What a couple goes through develops their bond as best friends. Each person in the marriage must look to the other as more important than himself or herself,” she says. “It’s too easy to give up. Marriage takes commitment and work. There is no room for selfishness.”

The McDonalds, who have moved 12 times and raised their children while still pursing college degrees, met in college in 1979 and married within six months.

“He has grown into the best kind of a best friend: a husband who loves me even when I am at my most unlovable state,” Susan says. “Going through hard times develops a friendship, as well as a marriage that is three-cord strong.”

Linda and John Poney

Linda Poney hears the question on a regular basis: “How can you work with your husband every day?”

“My response is ‘Why? You married him because you loved him, right?’ ” says Poney, 51, who, for the past 16 years, has worked side by side with her husband John in their wholesale kitchen and bathroom laminate countertop shop.

“Togetherness” is the operative word in the almost 34-year marriage of the Manor Township, Armstrong County, couple.

“Linda and I do everything together,” says John, 53. “We love walking on the beach, going to car shows, dinner and a movie and spending quality time together. … I get bored at horse shows but I am there to support my daughter and wife as they support me when I go train-watching, which is boring to them.”

Dick and Barbara Skrinjar

It’s a no-brainer, Dick Skrinjar says. “Who else would you want to spend your time with other than your best friend,” says Skrinjar, 64, of Highland Park. “All of our best friends are married to their best friends and we get along with each of them.”

“We complement one another and work well together. We make one another better people,” adds his wife of almost 40 years, Barbara Skrinjar, 63. “We don’t take one another for granted.”

They’ve been fortunate, the Skrinjars says, to have wonderful examples and role models for what it means to be husbands and wives, moms and dads. He was Barbara’s first solo date in high school.

“She is my best friend,” says Dick. “I’ve known her longer than anyone else on this Earth, almost 50 years. We always laugh with one another, never at one another,” he says. “We complement, not compete with one another.”

He likes the big picture, he says; she’s into the details.

“I’m tough and she’s soft — most of the time,” he says. “We watch ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Sons of Anarchy’ together. Guess who likes which show? … I always wish she gets her wish when we break wishbones.”

Shannon and Erik Singleton

When she met her future husband, Shannon Singleton says, “I just made him my best friend.”

“If you think about it, you should be friends with someone first before entering into marriage with them,” she reasons. “I do feel a relationship is built stronger when you’re friends first and then you go into marriage and that person becomes your best friend for life because you are always there for each other through ups and downs.”

The New Kensington residents — Shannon is 34 and Erik is 42 — were married Sept. 14, 2013.

“She loves me unconditionally, she takes care of me, encourages me and will do sweet things for me unexpectedly,” says Erik. “She’s a special woman and I’m proud to call her my wife and my friend.”

Marushka and Ren Steele

Playwright, actor and retired teacher Ren Steele knew that his wife, Marushka, was the girl for him when he gave her some of his poetry to read, “and she actually understood it.”

They’ve been married 35 years after meeting in New York “as actors trying to find our way,” Marushka says. “I was producing a play for the very first time and miscast the director but not the leading man (Ren as Capt. Bluntchli in ‘Arms and the Man’),” she says. “I did rather fall into a swoon for Ren. However, he waited until after the production to ask me out on a real date. How seldom does that happen in today’s world? I was so grateful for his friendship and his personal integrity.”

Today the Allegheny Township residents find themselves preparing for their 26th summer season producing and acting in plays at the Freeport Theatre Festival. “We are harmonious opposites,” Marushka says. “We are singing the same song — different parts, that is all.”

Betty and Richard Wilson

Betty Wilson can’t imagine not considering your spouse your friend. “I think it would be very difficult if you are not compatible,” says the Oakmont resident, who met her husband, Dr. Richard Wilson, 65 years ago in church camp. They married June 13, 1953, and try to stay as active as they can, at 83.

“We go places as much as we can, exercise, play bridge once in a while and have dinner with people,” Betty says.

They raised four children and Richard Wilson worked as a family physician for more than 50 years, retiring in 2001.

“A lot of things have gone on in life you never expected to happen,” says Betty. “You have to have faith and perseverance.”

Donna and Chuck Connors

Chuck knew Donna for 20 years as his sister-in-law. She lost her husband in 2005 and he lost his wife in 2008. They found themselves at family gatherings with the same problem. “We were lonely and would go home alone, only we went in different directions,” he says.

That all changed when Chuck, now 78, and Donna, 75, married five years ago. The couple lives in Bear Rocks, Fayette County.

Says Chuck: “How can a true marriage exist in this world unless you consider and treat your wife as though she is your best friend?”

Judy and Ed Byers

Ed Byers, 66, says he has always felt that being friends makes a marriage last. He and his wife, Judy, 65, of Carrick, will be married 49 years in May.

“We know how important it is to listen, respect and care about each other. We don’t let much upset us that isn’t important,” he says. “We still go on dates and we enjoy each other’s company.

“She is always there for me,” Ed says. “She is kind to people and cares about others. Nothing is more important to her than family. She’s a good friend, wife, mother and grandmother.”

Judy knows she can always count on her husband. “I can tell him anything and he never judges me. I can discuss anything with him. He is there when I’m happy, sad and/or scared. He makes me laugh. Life is too short to take everything too seriously.”

Joyce and Kevin Stern

After 30 years of being married, Kevin Stern says he has learned that “having a best friend as a wife doesn’t come as easy as one thinks.” The Latrobe resident finds that compromise and the ability to laugh together in the worst of times is key.

“My wife, Joyce, and I work together and are together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and we never are tired of one another,” he says. “When you have a best friend to go through life with, it makes it easier on both when you have someone to lean on.”

Lynn and Doug Ogden

“We are together as much as our busy lives permit,” says Lynn Ogden of Moon. She is a nurse and her husband is in law enforcement. “We will soon celebrate our 25th year of marriage, and remain as close as day one. We attribute this to being not only spouses, but best friends as well,” she says.

They feel as if their relationship affords them another aspect of intimacy.

“We realize that our duties as spouses are the primary factor in our relationship,”Lynne says, “but loving each other as best friends provide us the opportunity to be with each other in a different context, so to speak.”

Patricia DeJeet and the late Luther ‘Dij’ DeJeet

When Luther “Dij” DeJeet of Moon threw his wife, Patricia, a surprise 68th birthday party in December 2008, friends asked him why 68 and he responded, “I don’t know if I’ll be around for her 70th.”

“He wasn’t,” says Patricia, 74, who still lives in Moon. “He died on Aug. 1, 2010, at the age of 67.”

“If he weren’t my best friend, we would have not been able to face life and the ‘demons’ that were thrown at us,” she says.

“Never take each other for granted because life is too short,” she tells people, “In an instant, it can all come tumbling down.”

“In 43 years, my life was so much better because I shared it with my best friend at my side,” she says. “No other friend could ever replace my husband, my best friend.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or

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