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Local couple, Bill and Carolyn Fleet, offer a portrait of what makes a 60-year marriage work


Local couple, Bill and Carolyn Fleet, offer a portrait of what makes a 60-year marriage work

By LANDON WOODROOF

Bill Fleet has a funny story he likes to tell from the days just before he married his wife, Carolyn, going on 61 years ago.

His family had come up from Mississippi for the wedding in Carolyn’s home town of Carthage, Tennessee, and Bill was driving them around when he “went through a traffic light on pink” and was stopped by a police officer.

“The cop pulled me over, and I told him I had my parents in the car, and we were here for my wedding,” Bill, 85, remembered. “And the cop said, ‘Well, you’re getting into more trouble than I can dish out, so I’ll give you a warning.’”

It’s a story that benefits from the accumulated weight of the decades that followed it, in which Bill and Carolyn have been happily married and have raised three children. Whatever trouble may come along with marriages, it has never overcome the Fleets.

“We’ve had a good life,” Carolyn, 85, said.

Bill recounted this tale sitting next to Carolyn in a sunny apartment at The Heritage in Brentwood on a recent afternoon. The Fleets have lived at The Heritage for four years now, and have been in Brentwood since the early 1970s.

They took some time to reflect on their lives together and what ingredients go into making a successful marriage.

The joint path that led Bill and Carolyn from their separate youths in different states to The Heritage at Brentwood, began in 1956 in Nashville.

Bill and Carolyn had both graduated from Vanderbilt University the year before and went on a double date together.

Together, but not with each other. Carolyn was actually paired up with Bill’s roommate, while Bill can’t recall the person he was with. It seems like he could barely recall her even then.

“We got back to the apartment, and I asked Jim, ‘Do you mind if I call Carolyn up for a date?’” Bill remembered.

He had been immediately smitten with Carolyn.

“She was very, very pretty, and she was very outgoing and never met a stranger, and I was sort of shy so I’ve been going in her wake ever since,” Bill said.

“That’s exaggerating a little bit, but we are a little…that’s true,” Carolyn said.

Carolyn admits that she had not necessarily been as bowled over on the double date as Bill had been. She was kind of surprised when she got Bill’s call.

“I mean we double dated, I just didn’t think much about it,” she said. “But anyway, we started going out together and ended up getting married.”

The couple went for dates at movie theaters in downtown Nashville, at swimming pools around town and at a popular Vanderbilt hangout that the students called Butch’s, which was renowned for its steak and biscuit sandwiches.

The specifics of the marriage proposal have been lost to the years, but Carolyn said that proposing was not nearly as big a to-do back then.

“We didn’t have like they do now,” Carolyn said, before turning to Bill. “You just asked to marry me, and I guess I must have agreed.”

There is an understated humor that informs Bill and Carolyn’s rapport. They both notice it. In fact, Carolyn said humor is one of the keys to a lasting marriage.

At one point, Carolyn mentioned how people of she and Bill’s generation seemed to have had a more permanent view of marriage when they entered into it than people nowadays.

“I guess when we got married, I just assumed I would stay married,” she said. “We never considered divorce. Murder a few times, but never divorce.” They both laughed.

Another marriage essential is respect, which Carolyn defined as putting the other person first.

“I think we both respect each other,” she said. “And he’s always putting me on kind of pedestal. I don’t know if I’ve deserved it or not, but I’ve sure enjoyed it.”

The Fleets have led busy lives. In the early days of their marriage they moved around a lot. Bill first got a residency at a children’s hospital in Philadelphia. Then he got a fellowship in immunochemistry in Stockholm, Sweden. Next up was a job with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

During those years, the Fleets had three children.

“Everywhere we moved, we kept having a baby,” Carolyn said.

“So when we moved back to Nashville we got a dog,” Bill said.

They settled in the Nashville area for good in 1964. Bill worked at Vanderbilt for nine years before he went into private pediatric practice in Goodlettsville for 25 years.

When they became empty nesters, Carolyn was struck by another quality that made their marriage work.

“I guess when the children all went off to school we realized we’ve always loved each other, but we realized we also still liked each other,” Carolyn said.

Like is a powerful force in a marriage, smoothing over the deeper pangs that can accompany love. What was true when their kids went away is clearly still true.

Part of maintaining that sense of liking a marriage partner has to do with space.

“I think that’s another thing that makes it work,” Carolyn said. “You let each other do their own thing.”

Over the years, Carolyn and Bill have each had their separate hobbies and interests to go along with their shared activities.

Carolyn, for instance, loves playing bridge, while Bill has enjoyed woodworking and writing. Fleet actually had a regular column in the Brentwood Home Page for several years called “Sawdust & Turnip Greens.” Those columns were later collected in book form. 

Now, the couple spend much of their time socializing with their neighbors, participating in various activities at The Heritage and attending Brentwood United Methodist Church, where they have been members for 54 years.

Carolyn said church has been an integral part of not only her marriage, but her life and her children’s lives.

“I think that’s where you have your value system,” she said. “Our children were raised in the church, and they all go to church. For us that is a priority.”

They enjoy seeing their grandchildren when they can. Several of them live in the area. The Fleets have eight grandchildren, but consider their oldest grandson’s wife a grandchild, too, so they say they have nine.

Bill moves with the aid of a walker now. He said he has two speeds, slow and stopped. The married couple of 60 years does not mind the added minutes it takes to get places now, though. They are in no hurry.

“We’re gonna make it to 61, I think,” Carolyn said.

“Planning on it,” Bill said.

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