Dearly Beloved: What Love Looks Like After 80 Years of Marriage

The oldest living married couple in the world is a pair of Longhorns.

The Alcalde
Jan 2 · 6 min read

By Danielle Lopez | Photographs by Matt Wright-Steel

John and Charlotte Henderson in the foyer of the main building at Longhorn Village in West Austin in October 2019.

Time has little power over the lives of Charlotte and John Henderson. At 105 and 107, respectively, their minds are sharp, their bodies are able, and their marriage is strong. While most of us fret about time’s passing, the Hendersons are unbothered. It’s not just that they have had more than a century to come to terms with getting older — they have always been this way.

Since the day John, BS ’36, Life Member, first laid eyes on Charlotte, BS ’37, Life Member, in a zoology class at UT in 1934, they have been a forward-looking duo. Though he’s no longer a guard on the Longhorn football team, and they can’t travel the world like they used to, the Hendersons are not ones to dwell on the past. “It’s about living every day as it comes,” John says, “and trying to make tomorrow a better day than today.”

When I meet the couple on a chilly October afternoon, a few months before their 80th wedding anniversary, “today” is all about our interview and getting their photo taken for this magazine.

They had spent the morning getting dressed for the occasion, consulting each other, as they have for most of their lives, on what to wear. John decided on a typical outfit for him: khaki slacks and a pressed, white button-down dress shirt. Charlotte picked a chambray button-down and yellow top, complete with earrings and a gold necklace.

Before their portrait, we chat in the foyer of Longhorn Village, the West Austin retirement home where they’ve lived for the last 10 years. They are both sitting in wheelchairs, though they are still able to stand and walk, just not for long periods of time. And they’re hard of hearing, so I have to raise my voice several decibels to get them to understand me. But I notice that’s not a problem between the two of them. Whenever Charlotte trails off, John steps in to finish the story.

Charlotte and Joh, circa 1946.

“She was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen,” John tells me when I ask about the day they met. His assigned seat just happened to be behind hers. “He would lean over my shoulder and talk to me and we started right out dating,” Charlotte remembers. That year, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night won audiences’ hearts, the Great Depression raged on, and events leading to World War II had been set in motion. But John and Charlotte, ever time’s greatest usurpers, found joy despite the era’s troubles. Almost at once, they fell in love.

He was a 1925 Dodge Roadster-driving young man from Fort Worth and she was a transplant from Florida, who was born in Iowa. They were both studying education, on their way to becoming teachers. During the week, John would pick Charlotte up and take her to class and on the weekends, she would cheer him on during football games.

Charlotte and John, circa 1980.

John was eager to get married. But Charlotte, who could have never foreseen how long they’d be together, wanted to be practical. Despite the median age for marriage for women at the time being 21, she thought it was better for them to wait until they made some money for themselves first. Five years passed before they married, at 27 and 25, on Dec. 22, 1939. By then, Charlotte was an elementary school teacher, and John had taken a job at Humble Oil, now known as Exxon Mobil, in Baytown, Texas, where the couple spent more than 30 years. Together they built a life dedicated to their church, attending Longhorn football games, travel, and family, though they chose to never have children of their own. “Sometimes I think not having children is why we’ve lived so long,” John jokes.

In August, Guinness World Records named the Hendersons the “oldest married couple” for their aggregate age of 212 years. Marveling at their lives, I have one more question. How have 80 years of marriage been? “He’s always been a great fella,” Charlotte says. “I’ve always been in love with him and evidently he’s in love with me.”

As they settle into their seats to pose for the camera, John takes Charlotte’s hand, both turning their heads to look into each other’s eyes.

Team Player

The famous Texas Athletics T-ring on John’s finger is part of a tradition created by Darrell K Royal in 1957. John played his first season for Texas Football in 1932, when Clyde Littlefield was entering his seventh season as head coach. Since graduating, John has remained a die-hard Longhorn football fan. For nearly 80 years he attended football games and has spoken to every football coach since Littlefield. At the beginning of the 2019 football season, at the Texas vs. Louisiana Tech game, UT invited John onto the field for the first coin toss of the season. “Now when I go to athletic events, no one in my class is still there, but I do meet sons of my classmates — it’s kind of eerie,” John laughs.

In Good Company

The Hendersons’ grand-nephew Jason Free, BS ’09, Life Member, says what makes Charlotte and John great to be around is their positivity. “Whether it was a family gathering or the summers when I’d go up and stay,” he says, “you always wanted to be with them because they were just so upbeat and fun.”

Clockwise, from top left: John, Charlotte, and their grand-niece Julia Burns in December 1980; Charlotte and John, circa 1999; undated image of Charlotte and John; Charlotte and John, circa 1970; Charlotte and John having lunch at Longhorn Village in October 2019.

Finely Tuned

After a lifetime together, it’s no surprise Charlotte and John have their routine down to a T. John lives downstairs in the main building of Longhorn Village. In recent years, with her health beginning to decline, Charlotte needed a little more care. Now John meets her upstairs in the assisted living wing every day for lunch and dinner. “I’d much rather be with him, but it’s hard on him,” Charlotte says. “He has a good life, however, taking care of all the downstairs.”

Self-Care

On Wednesdays, Charlotte makes time for her weekly visit to the beauty parlor, located at the retirement community. And six days a week, John makes sure to get a workout in, lifting weights and doing exercises. “I don’t sit in the easy chair,” he says, cracking a smile. “I’ve seen too many in the easy chair sit down and relax — and they’re not here today.”

Clockwise, from top left: Charlotte and John circa 1944; from left, John, Charlotte, her mother Gertrude Curtis, and her sisters Lorraine and Norma, undated; John, image undated; Charlotte and John taking a stroll inside Longhorn Village.

“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Charlotte says. “We still have a good time together, whatever we do.”

[Stories like these are supported by membership in the Texas Exes. Join today to receive the bimonthly Alcalde magazine, and help keep alumni connected to UT.]

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All things University of Texas—sports, feature stories, alumni news, and more—from the magazine of the Texas Exes. Find more at alcalde.texasexes.org.

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