ESCANABA - Forrest Henslee claims he has lived a "charmed" life throughout his adulthood. But the charm was definitely needed when he proposed to his wife, Mary. Because she was only 16 at the time, her parents were very much opposed to her getting married and refused to sign for her. In addition, Forrest, himself, was under the legal age to get married in his state and was unable to marry without his parents' permission. And they didn't want to sign either.
"I guess they considered me a little country," he said with a grin.
But totally undeterred by either setback, Forrest was determined to marry the woman of his own choosing.
Dorothy McKnight | Daily Press
Forrest and Mary Henslee celebrated their 71th wedding anniversary on Sept. 7. The couple married in Lexinton, Ky., where Forrest was serving in the military during World War II.
"I told her I'd give her a week to think about it and if she didn't agree to marry me, I told her she'd never see me again," he said. "She finally said yes and we went to Kentucky to get married because everywhere else I had to be 21. But despite that, we had a very fine wedding and managed to get a church that agreed to handle the wedding. We asked the chaplain on the base if we could use the base chapel. They treated me royally and treated her royally as well," he added, nodding at his wife. "Then we started calling all our friends and relatives and just about filled the church. We really couldn't afford it, but the chaplain was very kind."
The ceremony took place more than 71 years ago on Sept. 7, 1942, at Fort Thomas Chapel in Lexington, Ky.
Surprising, each of them had at least one parent attended the ceremony, but the chill was evident on both sides.
"My mother was there but I don't think she liked the idea of her boy getting married." Henslee grinned at the memory.
Mary's parents attended as well. "I guess they realized that if they didn't come to the ceremony, we were just going to get married anyway," she said.
And the "charmed" life began in earnest.
Forrest was born and raised in Ohio and graduated from high school there in 1938. He worked in the grocery business until the start of World War II when he was drafted into the military.
"In those days you had to register for the military so I did and just waited to be drafted," he said. Soon after he was drafted in 1942, Forrest said he "worked his way" into Officers Candidate School.
"I had to be interviewed and left without knowing anything," he said. "I wondered, did I make it or didn't I? It just so happened that I made it."
He was then assigned to the Quartermaster, but because there was a shortage of combat engineers, Forrest applied and was accepted.
When he entered the military, he was named platoon commander of 60 men and remained with them throughout the entire war.
"My assignment was to keep the troops moving," he said. "I just made sure I did my job and did it right."
He was sent overseas to Europe three months after his wedding and on "D-Day+1 (June 7, 1944), Forrest made sure he and his men "did it right" all the way from Normandy through Belgium.
Attaining the rank of First Lieutenant, Forrest said his sister affectionally nicknamed him "Ike" after General Dwight Eisenhower.
Meanwhile, while her husband was in Europe, Mary completed nursing school in 1945, graduating as a registered nurse. She tried to ignore what was going on in the war.
"I didn't want to hear any bad news," she said. Instead, she received regular instructions from her husband outlining what he expected her to do while he was away. "He was rather spirited," Mary said with just a small touch of sarcasm.
After his discharge from the military at the close of the war, Forrest gathered up his wife and returned to Cincinnati, Ohio, and decided to go to college on the GI Bill.
"My dad died during The Depression and there was no money for me to go to college," he explained. "Under the GI Bill, I got money to go to college and even got paid money to life on. It was a good deal."
He graduated in two and a half years with a degree in business administration.
"The economy was booming by then and there were opportunities galore for men like me," Forrest said. "When I graduated, my college professors told us that the average starting salary was $235 a month. That was a very reasonable salary in those days."
But instead, Forrest set his mind to becoming a CPA.
"There were hundreds of guys wanting employees and one guy kept calling me," he said. "I was getting $235 a month as a CPA but he told me if I went with him, I would be making $7,300 a year. He asked, 'What do you have to say to that?' and I told him, 'You just bought me.'"
Forrest began working for Montgomery Ward and within a year, he was put in charge of a special management program as a senior officer of the corporation in charge of the mail order division. He worked in Grand Rapids as a supervisor of 15 mail order stores in the district.
In the process, Forrest developed high management training and was transferred to Escanaba to work as manager for the local store.
"I was promised that in a year they would pull me out and send me back to Chicago for further training," he said.
It was then that Forrest's "charmed" life took yet another turn. He didn't leave for Chicago at the end of the year. Instead, he was offered the job as president of the State Bank in Escanaba.
"The bank needed to replace their president and I was asked if I knew of anyone who could fill the position," he said. "When I thought about it, I told the man 'I think I have a prospect for you - me!' And that became my life's work.
But Mary wasn't convinced that remaining in Escanaba was a good idea.
"By then we had moved seven times in 14 years and had three kids," she said. They found a home on Ogden Ave in Escanaba, and although it was everything the couple wanted, both were reluctant to have their children attend the old, two-story Franklin School in the neighborhood.
"I read about an old two-story school that caught fire and a bunch of kids were trapped inside," Mary related. "I didn't want to take the chance."
But when you don't like a situation, move to change it. That was Forrest's philosophy. He organized a group of men to attend school board meetings and pushed the concept of either improving the existing schools or build new ones. With the help of a local attorney, the pair began attending PTA meetings and pushing hard for the advances. Their venture proved surprisingly successful.
During his tenure with the State Bank, Forrest also succeeded in building a new facility on Ludington Street because there was no parking available at the existing location.
When Forrest turned 65 and announced to his wife that he was ready for retirement, he admitted to being a little surprised at her less-than-enthusiastic reaction.
"I asked him where he was going to live because there certainly wasn't room in our house for the both of us," said Mary emphatically.
"I worked for another four years," Forrest quipped.
But Mary wasn't sitting on her hands while her husband was acting as a mover and shaker in the community, she was making a reputation for herself as well. She worked as a nurse at the old OSF St. Francis Hospital even though she instisted that she would not be available on weekends and holidays. She joined the Newcomer's Club, taking on the job as club president after only three months. She was also a member of the OSF Auxiliary and was president of the Escanaba Women's Club.
"I really like that group because they only give to charities in Escanaba so you know where the money goes," she said.
In 1969 she took on the duties as director of the Christian Park Village.
"I just loved that job," she said with a smile. "It was a joy to go to work."
Although both of them are experiencing health problems, they are content with their memories, along with visits with their three children - Linda (Fedele) Bauccio of San Francisco, Calif.; Judy Henslee of Milwaukee, Wis.; and Stephen (Julia) Henslee of Overton Park, Kan. - along with their six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
When asked how they account for their many years of marriage, Mary declared, "It takes a lot of patience and a lot of give-and-take - especially when you're married to 'The General.'"
Nodding as he recalls many of his own memories and his "charmed" life, Forrest said, "During my whole life, I've had a lot of luck. I'm not sure how that happened, but it did."