Charles first saw Juanita from across the room at church.
“I got to know her,” he thought that Sunday in Louisville. “And I did.”
Two years later they married.
In November, the Tacoma transplants — Charles Skaggs, 99, and the former Juanita Allen, 98 — will celebrate their 80th wedding anniversary.
“Good genes,” Charles said, “can take the place of a lot of negatives,” and are the secret to maintaining a relationship for eight decades.
He’s a retired calligrapher, art teacher and book designer. He designed more than 150 book jackets in his career, which led the couple across the country to Washington from Kentucky and New York City.
Juanita was a gardener. She planted roses at every home they owned.
“She has 10 green fingers,” Charles says.
Their daughter, Joyce Brewster of Seattle, said that over the years and in times of conflict, Juanita believed in Charles’ ambitions. He had a charming artistic nature that came with ups and downs. She was stubborn and dedicated. The connection they formed as a young couple held them together, she said.
On this Valentine’s Day, they’re living at Franke Tobey Jones, a retirement community near Point Defiance Park. Staff members say they rarely see them apart.
“She’s always been so beautiful,” Charles said of Juanita in a recent interview.
One staff member said she entered a room and saw the couple. They were asleep, and holding hands.
A GLANCE, A LETTER, A COURTSHIP
Charles grew up in Louisville — his father was a clerk for the L&N Railroad. Charles grew up fascinated with art and design.
Juanita was raised about 80 miles away in Falls of Rough, Kentucky, in a home without electricity and running water. Her father began as a livestock trader and later became the court clerk for nearby Grayson County.
Family say she had deep country values that she carried with her everywhere.
Back on that Sunday in Louisville, Charles didn’t know who Juanita was or where she was from. So he began asking mutual acquaintances where to send her a letter.
“This letter is the result of my having seen you across 30 or 40 seats at Sunday school,” he wrote. “There’s no reason on earth you have to honor me with an answer.”
She found one.
“To my surprise,” he said in the interview, “she responded.”
Charles didn’t visit Juanita right away.
“I figured that was breaking too much ice too soon,” he said, so they continued to write each other.
A relative of Juanita’s chaperoned the teenagers’ first date.
“They weren’t taking any chances,” Charles said and began to laugh.
“I remember the first dates we had in my dad’s borrowed Ford,” Charles said. “This was in the ’30s, and the dates were notoriously modest. We had a Coke and undoubtedly a hamburger.”
He continued to write Juanita and visit her in Leitchfield, the city she was living in 76 miles away.
When Charles graduated high school he moved to Cincinnati to design advertising for The Kroger Co. The 18-year-old used skills he picked up apprenticing for a local artist during high school.
The couple continued to write each other.
Juanita had graduated high school early at age 16. Now 17, she was in college 200 miles away at Western Kentucky State College in Bowling Green.
“It had been a very big deal for her to go to college,” said Brewster, her daughter.
A year later, Charles moved to Chicago. He began as an advertising artist for The Chicago Daily News and for a local advertising designer, E. Willis Jones.
He missed Juanita, their daughter said. After a pay raise from Jones, he proposed.
Charles wrote Juanita’s father a letter asking permission to marry. Her father opened the letter at the breakfast table and began to cry.
Juanita told family it was the only time she saw him this way, because it meant she would not finish college.
That November, a family friend and minister married them before their families in a Methodist church in a small city outside of Louisville.
Charles and Juanita drove to Chicago that day.
Juanita had turned 19 the month before and Charles was about to turn 20.
A CONNECTION OVER BOOKS
The couple connected over books.
“I got away with pretending to be fairly literate,” Charles said, adding that he never went to college or had formal training in the arts. “I grabbed and grasped what I could.”
Juanita, Charles said, “She was a big reader.” She read 19th-century English literature that she shared with their son and daughter.
“She’s given me several books that I still have, which are treasures,” he said. Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” is one of his favorites from Juanita, he said.
Over four-plus decades, the couple lived in Chicago (where their daughter was born), Cincinnati (where their son David was born on George Washington’s birthday) and in New York City.
Charles’ career turned to book designing, including for the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. He later became an art director at Macmillan Publishers and an art teacher at a downtown art school.
“Dracula,” “Moby Dick” and “The Canterbury Tales” were some of the titles he designed for book publishers. On the covers and pages he drew every letter by hand in precise rows.
Juanita loved Chicago and walked everywhere. In New York, she took the kids to art events. Her son remembers piano concerts in New Jersey and her daughter remembers an art show at The Museum of Modern Art.
Friends and family say Charles and Juanita took pride in their home life. They played jazz and classical music; Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were two of their favorites, Charles said.
Charles said they enjoyed inviting friends over for nickel and dime poker.
“Nita was a good poker player,” Charles said, adding she didn’t like to take a lot of chances. “She won more than she lost.”
In 1970, they moved back to Kentucky to be close to family and Juanita’s mother, who was growing old. Charles continued to design for New York City publishers and for Indiana University Press.
The couple moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1980. Their son David was a state legislator in Denver.
Charles designed books for the University of New Mexico Press. But the 6,000-foot altitude sapped Juanita’s strength and the arid climate wasn’t suitable for her gardening.
Juanita told Charles she wanted to move, so the couple headed for Olympia in 1984 to be close to their daughter, Joyce, who was living in Seattle
LIFE IN OLYMPIA
Charles said he liked Olympia’s small-town atmosphere.
“Just a nice place to live,” he said.
Charles continued to freelance as a book designer until 2005. He began to paint more and more as he transitioned into retirement.
He golfed several times a week at Delphi Golf Course. It was less than a mile from the couple’s home near Capitol State Forest.
Beatty Creek ran behind their backyard and they could hear the water from the home. When her daughter and grandchildren visited, Juanita walked the banks with them.
She spent much of her time in the garden. Flat-flowered heritage roses were one of her favorites. She would research rose types in magazines and order plants from a nursery in California.
“She was a fantastic gardener,” Brewster said, adding that her father, while at the golf course “got to know everybody.”
‘HE WANTS TO BE THERE’
The couple moved to an apartment at Franke Tobey Jones in 2008.
Juanita dug up a few of her roses from their Olympia home and planted them in her garden at the retirement community. She gave her daughter a clematis plant, which is still growing in Brewster’s garden.
Her mother had a hard time adjusting to communal life at Franke Tobey Jones because she took pride in the privacy of their past homes, Brewster said.
But she still enjoyed planting and pruning in her garden. She began with one garden plot and took over two more.
Charles practiced on the home’s putting green. If Juanita wasn’t gardening, she sat and watched him.
Shirley Robbins, the concierge at Franke Tobey Jones, said they’re early risers. While other residents met for continental breakfast at 9 a.m., Charles and Juanita had already finished.
The couple left every Monday for groceries, never returning without a dozen donuts in the bag.
These days, Charles and Juanita live in separate rooms in the health care center but still spend most of their time together. They sit side by side in wheelchairs outside of Juanita’s room.
Charles no longer makes art — arthritis prevents it — but continues to talk about it with staff and other residents.
There are moments when Juanita is awake and smiles. But she is mostly asleep. She lost her ability to speak. The couple exchange looks, touches and glances.
Charles misses the conversations with Juanita and is deeply pained, their daughter said.
“My father is essentially keeping watch over her. … He wants to be there, so he is.”
A FAVORITE FAMILY STORY
A favorite family story stemmed from when they were newlyweds in Chicago. Only a couple of weeks had passed since their vows.
They called it the time they were almost killed on the 333 Building.
Late on a Saturday afternoon in November, they stepped out onto a staircase on the 33rd floor of the building at 333 N. Michigan Ave., an art deco skyscraper next to the Chicago River where Charles had an office.
They could see the boats on their way to Lake Michigan. Drawbridges on the river raised as they passed.
“I was swishing in, showing my young bride what a great place Chicago was,” Charles recalled. “Little did I know that the door behind us was self locking and bingo.”
He remembers Juanita saying “Gee whiz” or “some expletive.”
Charles climbed down an outdoor staircase and met an employee on the 30th floor.
“I just happened to catch him on his way out,” Charles said, adding that the couple could have been locked out all weekend.
“It was so cold,” he said. “Those were absolutely marvelous days.”