Working side-by-side ~ 64 love-filled years

Sweethearts Dave and Laura Jean Rittenhouse are pictured here with two homemade Valentines from their vast collection. The happy couple has been making Valentines for each other since they met in college in 1955. Laura Jean said Dave made her the most beautiful Valentine that first Valentine’s Day – and he wrote a poem to go with it. “Love may be more intense when you’re young,” Dave said. “But it’s deeper when you get older.” L.D. Bennett photo

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

The love story of David and Laura Jean Rittenhouse began in 1955, when the two met at Bridgewater College in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Dave was a senior from the town of Queen Anne on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Laura Jean was a freshman from Bassett, Virginia, 50 miles south of Roanoke.

From similar backgrounds, they’d both been raised in the Church of the Brethren faith.

It didn’t take long for the two young people to decide that they wanted to spend their lives together.

“We met on campus in September that year,” Dave recalled. “We didn’t have any money, so dating was usually pretty simple.”

“I remember we took a lot of long hikes,” Laura Jean added. “And I think we dated for months on about 20 cents.

“One time, we saved up enough money for a milkshake and got two straws,” she laughed.

But there are some long lasting things that money can’t buy.

“When we were at college, for our first Valentine’s Day together, I made Laura Jean a Valentine, and I’ve been making one for her every year since,” Dave said.

“He made the most beautiful Valentine, and he wrote a poem in it,” Laura Jean said, smiling.  “The last line read, ‘I treated her like a sister, until one day I up and kissed her.’

“A friend of his told me later that he’d always said that he’d never kiss anyone until he was sure she was the one he wanted to marry,” she explained. “So I guess that’s what he did.”

They were engaged in February and married in September.

“I always knew she was the one,” Dave said.

Dave popped the question one day at college after a recital.

“She took music lessons,” he remembered. “She was always really good at playing the piano. We went up to the music room, and I stuttered around until she guessed what I wanted to ask.

“She was nineteen, and I was twenty-four when we got married.”

“Dave convinced me that I’d get a better education married to him than by staying in college and graduating, so I left school and we got married,” Laura Jean laughed.

“And it really turned out to be true,” she added.

They were married on August 5, 1956 at the Mt. Herman Church of the Brethren, Laura Jean’s home church, in Bassett, Virginia.

Laura Jean’s grandfather officiated at the ceremony.

“For our wedding, the women of the church brought fresh-cut flowers from their gardens,” Laura Jean said. “For our honeymoon we went on the Blue Ridge Parkway and camped out in the mountains.”

After their honeymoon, the newlyweds embarked on the first chapter of their life together – taking up residence in Chicago.

Dave entered Chicago’s Bethany Theological Seminary, a Church of the Brethren institution.

Laura Jean enrolled at nearby Bethany Training School.

While they were in Chicago, they had a daughter, Melissa, in 1957.

In 1959, the year they both graduated from Bethany, their son, Phillip, came along. 

They had both been pursuing their studies with an eye toward foreign mission work, and they were assigned to go to Ecuador.

While they were waiting for their passports and paperwork to come through, Dave and Laura Jean were sent to Pocahontas County to evaluate the Church of the Brethren situation here.

That is what led Dave and Laura Jean to come and live here.

“They sent us here to evaluate whether the rural churches in this area were worth keeping open,” Dave explained. 

The young family moved into the Church of the Brethren parsonage in Durbin.

“We began pastoring the seven rural churches scattered all over Pocahontas County,” Dave said.

“By the time we left for Ecuador, I just loved it here, and I loved all the people,” Laura Jean said, smiling.

They completed their three-year mission in Ecuador, living in the rain forest near the small town of Santo Domingo.

Their third child, Julian, was born there in 1961.

Dave said when they returned to the U.S., they were glad to come home to Pocahontas County.

“When we came back, we decided it was probably easier to get missionaries to go abroad than to get pastors to come to Pocahontas County, and we wanted to live and work here.”

“We knew we were needed here, and this is where we were supposed to be,” he added.

Laura Jean agreed.

“I love it here,” she said. “I’d never want to live anywhere else.”

The Rittenhouses were first supported by the Church of the Brethren, but they ultimately had to support themselves.

“We bought the farm in Frost – Twin Hill Farm – and moved down from Durbin,” Dave remembered.

Laura Jean said the couple took up farming and teaching, and did whatever they had to do to support themselves.

“We had twenty-five sheep, ten cows, a big garden and a milk cow,” Dave said. “Our first sheep were given to us by some deacons in the church.

“I named the ewes after the deacons wives, and one of the wives didn’t like that too well.

“She got even with me. She named one of their pigs Dave,” he laughed.

But the couple soon learned that they weren’t truly “settled” in the county.

“No sooner had we gotten settled in, when we got a call from a congregation in Puerto Rico whose pastor had died,” he recalled.

“I guess someone who knew us and knew that we spoke Spanish, recommended us. They said God told them I was supposed to be their pastor.

“That’s why, in 1981, we ended up spending a year in Puerto Rico,” Laura Jean said. “And we had a wonderful time.”

They returned to Pocahontas County, and Dave became pastor of the New Hope Church of the Brethren and the congregation began to steadily grow, and so did the Rittenhouse family.

They had another son – Samuel.

“I remember, all those years ago, when we first came to Pocahontas County, I’d cry sometimes because I didn’t have any family here,” Laura Jean said. “Well, I guess we’ve taken care of that.”

Besides their daughter Melissa, and sons, Julian, Phillip and Samuel, they now have 10 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and they are expecting two more.

“I think the best thing you can do for your kids is to give them the security of knowing that their parents love each other,” Dave said. “That example is a great gift.”

Do Dave and Laura Jean have any advice for couples contemplating marriage these days?

“Well, when I was graduating seminary, we had a speaker who was a Methodist minister,” Dave remembered. “He gave us some pretty good advice that applies to everything in life.

“He told us not to give up.

“I think people give up too easily.

“And it helps to be serving the Lord together. You don’t stop and analyze each others’ faults, just keeping working side-by-side,” he said.

Dave and Laura Jean may have slowed down a little bit, but they continue to serve their congregants and their community.

Although their son, Julian is now the full-time pastor at New Hope, Dave still serves as a “fifth Sunday” pastor there and at the churches in Boyer and Pine Grove.

And every Wednesday, Dave has bible study at the Green Bank Senior Center, where, every Thursday, Laura Jean leads the senior choir, along with her friend, Florence Kessler.

“Couples need to have something in common to work toward that’s bigger than themselves,” Dave said.

“When you’re standing side by side – you are closer to each other than if you are looking at each other.

“Real love seeks the happiness of the other person, rather than your own satisfaction.

“If you both have that attitude, you’re going to be happy,” he advised.

Valentine’s Day has always been special to Dave and Laura Jean.

“We treat it as a special day, and we always do something special for each other,” Laura Jean said.

“Dave has always made a Valentine for me, and I always make one for him.

“Of course, we’ve saved all the Valentines we’ve made for each other over the years.” 

They kept the Valentines in the piano bench, but when it was filled, they found other places to store the mementos of their years together.

“One day the kids will have a good time looking at all of them,” she added.

“I’ve heard it said that it takes a woman’s love to catch a man, but it takes God’s love to live with him. And that works both ways,” Dave said.

Laura Jean said that it took about 30 years of marriage, but Dave finally did something that she didn’t like.

“One Easter Sunday morning, Dave said he’d decided to grow a beard, and I said, ‘I can’t believe that.’

“After all, nobody in my family or my home church had ever had a beard,” Laura Jean explained.

“We were having lunch at Madeline and Bernie Galford’s, and I told Madeline about it,” Laura Jean continued.

“Madeline said, ‘Well, you tell him I’ll never come to hear him preach again,” Laura Jean said, laughing.

“Oh, but she forgave me,” Dave said.

“That’s the first thing you ever did that I didn’t want you to do,” Laura Jean said, as she and Dave shared the memory.

“She likes it all right now,” Dave said with a smile, “but I have to keep it trimmed.”

They told me their church always has a Valentine breakfast and sometimes the young people make a fancy Valentine’s Day supper.

“This year, our youth group will be babysitting at the church so the grownups can have dates,” Dave said.
You’re never too old for a date.

Dave and Laura Jean will be married 64 years this coming August. 

“For our anniversary, we always go to Cracker Barrel in Harrisonburg,” Laura Jean said.

“Laura Jean loves their chicken livers,” Dave said. “And I like the pork chops and mashed potatoes.

“But for Valentine’s Day, we may go to Bridgewater,” Dave suggested.

“Dave usually gives me flowers,” Laura Jean said. “And, of course, we’ll make Valentines for each other.”

The couple admits they’ve always spoiled each other, even when they didn’t have much money.

“Laura Jean’s always treated me special,” Dave said. “We give each other a lot of attention.

“Love may be more intense when you’re young, but it’s deeper when you get older.”

“We’ve always been best friends,” Laura Jean added.

“And we still are.”

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