The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This couple met when they joined the school choir. More than 70 years later, they’re still in rhythm.

Dean and Dorothy Hearn say the secret to a happy marriage is akin to music — two voices in harmony.

Dorothy and Dean Hearn in the backyard of their home in Gaithersburg, Md. They met in their junior high school choir, began dating in high school and got married soon after graduation. They are celebrating 65 years of marriage later this year. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Seventy-one years ago, at Boise Junior High School in Idaho, not enough boys had joined the choir, so the director went in search of tenors. That is how Dean Hearn came to stand near a short girl with dark curly hair and a cherubic smile — though he didn’t notice her at first.

As he recalls, “I didn’t understand what girls were.”

But Dorothy Medlin knew what boys were. Dean was funny and handsome, with Clark Kent glasses, chiseled cheekbones and wavy blond hair. Soon they started meeting in the halls, and a friendship formed.

“I thought he was a good guy,” Dorothy said, glancing at him as they sat on the couch in their Gaithersburg, Md., living room.

“I thought she was okay for a girl,” said Dean, a little smile playing on his lips.

This year the couple will celebrate 65 years of marriage, and this month they mark the 66th anniversary of the day Dean asked Dorothy to marry him. He decided against Valentine’s Day because it felt too obvious; he asked her a week later. But as the holiday dedicated to love approached, the couple reflected on what brought — and kept — them together.

Valentine's Day was humiliating for me as a child. I tell my students about it every year.

They had remained friends through high school, continuing with choir. The director set them up in a trio with Dorothy’s identical twin, Donna, and the three harmonized together. His voice deepened to a rich bass, and he started to understand what girls were.

In 1952, he asked Dorothy on a date. They attended a church party and played ping-pong. Something clicked.

“He kind of like, wanted to protect me,” said Dorothy, 84. “It was just a feeling of comfort.”

Dean, 83, nodded. “I don’t know, I just felt very comfortable with her. Still do, by the way.” He reached out to touch her arm.

Dorothy went off to college when Dean was still in high school. It was only 25 miles away, but he felt a little nervous. She came home one weekend; the two attended a formal dance and, sitting in the car afterward, he proposed.

She was surprised, but only by the timing. “I thought eventually we would get married, but I figured he’d wait,” she said. She had only been in college a few months. He was still in high school.

The following year he joined her at Idaho State University. They married in 1955. She became a teacher, he became a banker and then a computer programmer, and they raised two daughters and a son in Salem, Ore., before moving to the Washington area in 1983.

Now they live in the Asbury Methodist Village retirement community. They volunteer at Oasis, an organization that offers lectures, classes and other resources to people 50 and older. They also still sing — in the Asbury Encore Chorale, in the car, and in their two-bedroom house nestled among trees, blue jays and cardinals.

Music has been the lodestar of their relationship. They once sang at the Boise High School Acapella Choir’s 1952 Christmas concert, held in the rotunda of the Idaho state capitol. Both recalled how their spines chilled as they heard their voices soar to the top of the dome and meld together.

It was long ago, but they didn’t by chance have a recording of that day?

Actually, they did. Dean crouched beside a shelf of vinyl LPs and pulled out two whose paper sheaths had yellowed — discs cut for the singers after their performance. He fiddled with wires, then plugged in a wooden record player (“It’s probably 15 years since we’ve used this,” he said). The needle dropped, the speaker crackled, and ethereal voices sang “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

“Sounds from the past,” Dean said in a spooky voice.

The chorus paused, and a deep voice rose up, telling the story of Mary and Jesus.

“Is that you?” Dorothy said. “That’s you!”

Dean sat beside her and took her hand.

She looked at him, misty eyed.

“Bring back memories?” he asked, and patted her hand.

“I’m feeling weepy because I’m sentimental,” she said, reaching her fingers behind her wire-rim glasses to dry her eyes. “And because I feel really loved and cared for, and it was an experience I never thought I’d have.”

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It’s not as if there were never difficult patches, like when Dorothy wrestled with having to leave her job and friends out west and move across the country for Dean’s career. She suggested a long-distance relationship; he wouldn’t hear of it.

“But you have to work through the rocky times to appreciate the good ones,” she said. “I was kind of taught that when you’re married you have to make some compromises. … My parents had kind of a rough life and they stuck together, and that was what I felt. If you’re going to do it, you’re going to stick with it.”

Did divorce ever come up? It did. But then they would look at each other and say no, and that was the end of it.

He still has the lanky frame, more fragile now; she still has the bouncy curls, white now. They have dealt with health issues: Dean has had lymphoma, diabetes, quadruple bypass surgery and rheumatoid arthritis.

Now, they just feel lucky. “I look at the percentage of people who have divorced, who have lost their spouse, and I feel really … ” Dean paused, a lump in his throat.

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So what are the secrets to a 65-year marriage?

“Instead of giving each other things, we do things together,” Dorothy said. She thought about it some more. “I keep coming back to that our interest in music has helped keep us together.”

After all, making it work between people is something akin to two voices seeking out a harmony. As they explained this, they fell into a kind of counterpoint.

“When it works right — ” Dean said.

“When we’re on the right note — ” Dorothy said.

“It’s all complementary,” he said.

Dorothy nodded. “It’s like real life. If you’re doing things the right way you’re not always doing the same thing. You’re singing different notes and rhythm, but eventually we come to the point where we’re singing the same rhythm and the same notes. You’re a little off balance … but you have to go through the rough patches to get to the balance of things.”

By the way, there was a reason Dean didn’t wait until high school graduation to propose. He didn’t like to think about her “out there with those football heroes — ”

Dorothy cut in. “I didn’t like that kind of guy.”

“Good,” he quipped. “’Cause you didn’t get one.”

“I got the right one."

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