The first thing that caught Roy Barton’s eye as he stood nervously at a dance in 1945 was the smile of a young Jean Cortesi. Little did he know then, but that smile would greet him daily for another 70 years. “She’s still got a bit of that sparkle in her eye,” he says, chuckling.
The Bartons from Blenheim are a rare find, having marked their 70th wedding anniversary this year – just like the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
Then a young Royal New Zealand Air Force corporal, Roy, now 95, had recently returned to Auckland from Vanuatu at the end of World War II and was waiting to be cleared from service, when he turned up at a dance one night and met his bride-to-be. It wasn’t long before he was moved to ask for a second date.
“He took another friend with him that time, though,” Jean (89) recalls. “He was nervous that I wouldn’t turn up!”
“She always had a nice smile on her face, she was calm,” Roy adds. “I was a bit on the shy side but she sort of tuned in well with that.”
And Jean is quick to admit she quite fancied a man in uniform. “He was in the Air Force – that’s what attracted me! He was very attractive too, mind you. He looked lovely in his uniform. He looked the best of all the men.”
After “going together” for 18 months, the couple were married in June 1947, but not before Roy was put through his paces.
“He did have to come home and meet my father first, of course,” she remembers.
“I was a wee bit nervous,” says Roy, before Jean hoots, “A big bit, he means! My dad did his best to tease him and ask him a lot of questions, and poor Roy couldn’t answer them all. But he did his best!”
When conversation turns to Roy’s proposal, Jean points out there wasn’t any pomp and circumstance when a couple got engaged back then as there might be today.
“Oh, no. He just said, ‘When are we getting married?’ We took it for granted that we were going to get married. You sort of knew who you wanted to be with.”
With Roy one of nine kids and Jean one of six, the wedding was a big family affair.
“I think I was 30 minutes late on our wedding day because my flowers were late arriving,” tells Jean. “In those days, cars could only be driven at certain times of the day due to petrol restrictions. But I heard Roy was pacing up and down...”
“I was used to waiting,” Roy retorts. “I’m a well-trained man.”
“You cheeky mongrel!” Jean laughs good-naturedly.
“Well, she was worth waiting for, that’s for sure,” recalls Roy. “She looked beautiful.”
Following the wedding, the couple set off on a two-week honeymoon, catching the train from Pukekohe to Rotorua, before settling into married life as Mr and Mrs Barton.
Jean remembers the grand wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip the same year, but says she feels she and Roy are the lucky ones.
“I don’t think they’ve had an easy life, with people watching them all the time. They wouldn’t be able to have an argument without people seeing it! I don’t envy them at all.”
And while the couple look back fondly on their seven decades together, they are the first to admit there were hard times along the way. In their early years of marriage, they faced a near two-month separation as Roy travelled to Trentham to train in Morse code for his post office job – something he still proudly recalls to this day.
But of life in the marital home, Jean jokes, “Roy wasn’t much good inside!”
“Well, I don’t quite agree with that!” he says. “In my single days, I had a bach of my own and I’d do my own cooking.”
“Well, you didn’t do any cooking once I married you!” laughs Jean.
After three years of marriage, they welcomed their first child, Greg, in 1950. Anne followed in 1952, with Kate born in 1959.
“Oh, we loved being parents,” says Jean, with Roy adding he was “a very proud” father. The couple are also delighted to say they have six grandchildren and one great-grandson.
Sadly in 1999, Roy and Jean tragically lost their eldest daughter Anne after a surgical procedure went wrong. It’s something that is extremely difficult for the couple to talk about, but they still speak of her daily and are proud of the strength of their family in those grieving years.
“Losing our daughter was very hard,” tells Jean. “But we have been very fortunate – we’ve had a pretty good life. Roy’s my rock.”
The pair are shocked every time their incredible milestone is mentioned as they can’t quite believe it themselves. So what would they say to young couples just starting out?
“Patience is key,” says Jean. “Spend time with each other and don’t get so caught up in other things that you forget your partner. Be honest and share your lives, but give each other some freedom too.
“I wouldn’t swap him,” she giggles. “Though he might have wanted to swap me occasionally when I got a bit too bossy!”
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