Cleovis and Arwilda Whiteside’s marriage is a love story that spans 80 years. In fact, they’re the only couple in Arkansas who has been married that long.
On Saturday, the two celebrated a near-century tale of devotedness among family and friends at the International House of Praise in Pine Bluff.
“We know it’s nothing but God, because we look at who we are and who we were and what God has did for us,” Arwilda Whiteside said, crying. “It’s a dream.”
At 13-years-old, Cleovis recalls meeting Arwilda, 9, surrounded by family and friends. After playing a game, he insists he knew she was the one.
“She (ran) to me, and I kissed her on the forehead and said, ‘you gone be my wife,’ and we were just kids,” he said as Arwilda echoed, “and I’ve been running to him ever since.”
Just four years later, Cleovis and Arwilda would tie the knot on July 24, 1939, at 17-years-old and 13-years-old, respectively. The couple remembers that it was a day filled with heavy rains, causing only a small number of family members to gather to witness the two exchange vows at home.
“… I was in the eighth grade when we got married” said Arwilda, now 94-years-old. “But I was my mom’s oldest child, and I knew how to cook and clean and do all of that.”
This past March, the Whitesides and nine other couples were honored at the Governor’s Mansion during a dessert reception. The event recognized the longest married couples in the state.
“It was a dream,” Cleovis said. “We weren’t expecting it. They said, ‘ya’ll know ya’ll the oldest married couple in Arkansas?’”
At the start of their marriage, the couple began farming. However, after three failed attempts as sharecroppers, Arwilda says they stopped. Cleovis later joined the Navy and left after three years to attend the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. After leaving UAPB, he began working at the Pine Bluff Arsenal, where he worked for nearly 30 years before retiring and settling in White Hall.
“I tell the world my husband and my children are my life,” Arwilda said. “We never had a whole lot. But one thing we had always -- love. We laughed. We cried, but laughed.”
Arwilda and Cleovis had 12 children -- Cleovis Jr., Willie, James, Carolyn, Kathy, Wilma, Brenda, Donnie, Sharon, John, Raymond and Marion. Through the struggles, Arwilda says it was their faith in God that helped them to look forward to better days.
“We’re not a perfect family, but we’re a Godly family,” Arwilda said. “We have been blessed beyond words. When you pray, God says He will open the doors of Heaven. Well, the doors of Heaven have been open for us.”
After decades of learning to love unconditionally, Arwilda urges that placing God at the center acted as the glue that held her marriage together.
“I tell everybody, if it weren’t for God, we would’ve knocked each other in the head a long time ago,” she said, laughing. “We weren’t happy all of the time. We had our issues and our problems.”
But, just like one of Arwilda’s favorite songs, ‘Through it All,’ she said she learned to trust in Jesus.
“It’s a highway,” she said of love and relationships. “You have a lot of curves and a lot of bumps. We had the curves. We had the bumps. But, by the grace and mercy of God, we’re grateful.”
For their daughters Brenda Jackson and Marian Whiteside-Rivers, observing their parent’s marriage evolve gave each sister a different perspective on life and love.
“You never realize your parents are a trend, because they are our parents and they have grown with us,” Jackson said. “Their faith was always there, but was more apparent as we aged. We spent every Sunday in church all day, every Tuesday for mission and every Wednesday for Bible study.”
The youngest of 12, Whiteside-Rivers says she always saw her parents giving glory to God, even when times were tough. She believes it was their commitment to Him over the years that allowed them to live so long.
“It is a blessing to know that God is still good and they are part of a miracle that could only come from real love and trust,” Whiteside-Rivers said.
When asked what advice he’d give others hoping to stay married, 98-year-old Cleovis vowed that couples should operate as one, adding that it remains important to stick together no matter what.
“If we have a problem, we work it out,” he said. “(We) pray to God and thank Him for bringing us out of it. We lived that way. The Lord kept us together.”
Cleovis says they weren’t sure they’d make it to celebrate their 75th or 80th wedding anniversary, but he’s grateful that God allowed them to see two momentous occasions. And he looks forward to commemorating even more.
“If He takes us, we got to go,” he said. “If not, we’re going to be right here until the next time.”