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86 Years of 'I Do'

Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher maintain Guinness World's Record for longest marriage.

Editor's note: The Fisher's have both since passed away -- Herbert in February 2011, and Zelmyra in February 2013.

In a day when marriages begin and end with the greatest of ease, Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher are a rarity. The James City, N.C., husband and wife have been wed 86 years and hold the Guinness World Record for the longest marriage of a living couple.

Banners and signs celebrating that record decorate the front lawn of their ranch-style home. They’ve captured the attention of newspapers, magazines and websites everywhere. And just recently, they received a signed commendation from President Obama with a promise of an official invitation to the White House to meet him.

The hoopla over their accomplishment doesn’t faze them at all. Zelmyra, 103, scorns the idea that there’s some secret to the longevity of their marriage. “No secrets,” she says. “There isn’t any secret. It was only God that kept us together.”

Herbert, 105, is amazed at their longevity. “I didn’t know I would be married this long,” he says. The retired Coca-Cola Bottling Co. mechanic still has a sharp mind, though his hearing is failing. Revered as a hard-working husband and father, Herbert built the family home in 1942, and he and his wife still reside there. His diligence and aggressive saving paid for the college educations of the couple’s five children. They also have 10 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and four great-great grandchildren.

Their granddaughter Iris Godette is responsible for arranging the Guinness recognition. In 2005, after seeing a TV news report about a couple married for 75 years, she was motivated to research how long her grandparents had been hitched. After poring over records at the county Register of Deeds, she found that they had been married for 81 years. But when she submitted an application to Guinness, another couple who had been married just a few months longer held the record. Godette resubmitted the application in 2008, and that year they officially became the world’s longest-married couple still living.

Besides family, God and the church have been ever-present in the Fishers’ lives. They have maintained memberships at separate houses of worship during their marriage. She belongs to Jones Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; he’s a member of Pilgrim Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. Both are in James City, the close-knit community where they grew up together.

Despite separate church memberships, their hearts stay connected. Through the ups and downs of marriage, neither has ever considered divorce. Zelmyra adamantly opposes the idea of divorce and remarriage. “I didn’t know it would be as long as it is now,” she says of her 86 years with the same man. “I knew that I wouldn’t be looking for another husband.”

Zelmyra doesn’t attribute her long, vibrant life to healthy eating, exercise or costly nutritional supplements. Her efforts have been focused on her inner person and building relationships with others. “[You have to] know how to talk to people,” she says. “Try to treat everyone right.”

The centenarians have a loving understanding of each other and enjoy a simple life. They are fond of television news programs, and Herbert especially likes watching his favorite baseball team, the Atlanta Braves. They also take pleasure in sitting on their front porch to watch neighbors come and go and railroad trains whisk by.

“I think it is a blessing first that two people can ultimately love each other, respect each other and still want to be each other’s friend,” Godette says. “These days, you just don’t hear of a couple that stays together so long. They took those vows, ‘till death do us part,’ seriously. They have weathered the storms. There were good times and bad times, but they stuck it out.”

Those bad times include the lean years of the Great Depression when Herbert worked for as little as a nickel a day. They had to raise their own food and ration it for their young children. Perhaps those difficult years bonded and empowered them to remain married for so long.

“They cherish each other,” Godette continues. “If they had to be apart, their lives wouldn’t be as fruitful. . . . They are connected. They are soul mates.”