Forty Acres and 80 years together: How Austin sweethearts became world’s ’oldest married couple’
It was 1934 and John Henderson wanted a car.
So he shelled out $26 for a used green Dodge Roadster, hoping the wheels would bring new adventures and impress fellow University of Texas classmates like Charlotte Curtis, the pretty girl who sat in front of him in zoology class.
“It turned out to be the best $26 I ever spent,” said John Henderson, now 106. “I dated Charlotte all during the time I had it.”
“I felt so important in that little roadster,” added Charlotte Henderson, now 105, with a laugh. “It was just a nice, nice car.”
Nearly 80 years of marriage later, Charlotte is still by John’s side, the two sharing a life that has included everything from far-flung travels to countless favorite meals to, most recently, a Guinness World Record — in August, the Hendersons were named the oldest married couple on earth, with an aggregate age of 211 years.
Sometimes, it’s hard not to wonder how the days turned into decades in a flash, Charlotte Henderson said.
“One year just went into the next year,” she said recently at Longhorn Village, the retirement community the couple calls home. “We’ve always loved each other, cared for each other. It’s just one of those things that comes naturally to us. Is that right, John?”
“And we support each other,” John Henderson added. “You have to be partners. Don’t try to outdo your mate. Be grateful for what you have, try to expand on what you have and try to make tomorrow a better day than today.”
The couple dated throughout college — John was a guard on the football team and holds the title of oldest living former UT football player.
“When I moved to Austin for my freshman year I roomed in a house across the street from Gregory Gym,” John Henderson said. “The people next door had chickens and a cow. Can you imagine chickens and a cow at Gregory Gym today?”
After waiting for Charlotte “to make up her mind that she was ready for marriage,” John Henderson said, they tied the knot in 1939.
Although they never had kids, they were surrounded by children in their daily jobs — Charlotte as an elementary school teacher and John as a junior high football and basketball coach in Port Arthur, near Houston.
“I think I made $100 a month for nine months,” John Henderson said. “Those were some tough days, but we didn’t know about it. Everybody was in the same boat.”
John Henderson later accepted a position nearby at Humble Oil and Refinery Co., where he worked for more than three decades, traveling back to Austin frequently to attend UT games.
From a framed photo of the couple posing with a live longhorn to the season tickets they still hold, the Hendersons’ love is draped in burnt orange. They vowed that when they retired they would move back to Austin, so 10 years ago, they did.
To meet the Hendersons is to witness a closeness that only a lifetime together can bring. She knows his favorite sweater. He knows how she takes her coffee. Sometimes it’s the most minute details that can create the seams in the patchwork of a life.
“They are the timeless people. They’ve been the constant throughout my life. I’ve always felt that one of the things that differentiates them from other people that I know is they’re forward looking,” said their great-nephew Jason Free. “They’ll tell you the old stories, but they don’t dwell on the past. They remember the past, but they look forward to the future.”
Free, who nominated the couple for the world record, said the nomination process took several months and included paperwork and witness testimonies. When John Henderson learned they were the oldest married couple, he was “flabbergasted. It never occurred in my mind that we were even close.”
Suddenly, something that had always seemed so simple — their love — was being viewed as quite extraordinary, with a media blitz landing them on TV screens across the state in early November. The Hendersons say the gift of these years, of this long, rich life, is not lost on them.
“I’m thankful for life itself and being able to live a full life and really a healthy life,” said John Henderson, adding that the couple will celebrate their 80th wedding anniversary on Dec. 22. “We’re just grateful and thankful for being able to exist this long.”
“I’m thankful for every day that rolls around,” Charlotte Henderson added. “I’m just thankful for everything.”