Polka Dots, a Chevy... and Forever

In February 1950, twenty-one-year-old James Stanley was walking out of the movie theater when he first saw Donna June Beck from afar. The two were separated by a crowd of people, but when she met his gaze, both claim to have been immediately interested in the other. James’ cousin, who also happened to be a friend of Donna’s, worked his magic, and the couple were set up on a date for the following weekend.

James fondly remembers driving a 1947 Chevrolet to pick Donna up from her Atlanta, Texas home. “When I pulled up, she stepped out on her front porch before I could get out of the car. She was wearing a blue dotted dress. I just sat there, staring at her. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that there stood the rest of my life.” With that instant assurance, the two were off to Texarkana, where they ate foot-long hot dogs on State Line Avenue. Little did the couple know that first date was only the beginning. Nine months later, James and Donna were to be married. She says her parents could not afford a lavish wedding, so she trekked through the woods on her wedding day and picked wild ivy to decorate the church. She laughs and says she got scratched by thorns while trying to be a do-it-yourselfer and looked like she’d been in a catfight. Adding to the shenanigans, the wedding didn’t start on time because James’ parents were late getting to the ceremony. They were tending to his younger sister who had a terrible stomach virus and was “throwing her toenails up” all the way to the front door of the church. James’ oldest brother was keeping a watch out for the late comers by leaning out of one of the church windows. The heavy window was being held open by a stick, as was par for the course for country churches back in the day. The stick collapsed, sending the window down on big brother’s neck. Rendered helpless, the wedding party had to save big brother from the surprise guillotine. Adding to the fun, Donna’s brother-in-law had the honor of giving her away. She giggles telling the story that right when they began their trip down the aisle, she noticed his pants were unzipped, but it was too late. It was showtime. Despite the unplanned craziness of the day, the pair became Mr. and Mrs. James Stanley on December 22, 1950.

The newlyweds quickly settled into married life. James was finishing out his teaching stint in a little community called Highway, which was between Malta and New Boston. He taught 4th-6th graders in one room and says, though he had some bright students, it was a circus.  By June 1951, he joined the air force.  Boarding a train in Texarkana, he was bound for Lackland Air Force Base.  Donna says she vividly remembers that train pulling away from the station with her young husband on board.  Tearful, she collapsed and slid down a pole she’d been leaning against.  She says that same pole is still at the Texarkana depot.  Occasionally, she’ll spot it as she drives by, and memories of that day flood her mind. 

Six weeks after James left for basic training, Donna boarded a train and found a seat among what seemed like 10,000 servicemen. She said she had “never been anywhere to speak of,” and she was scared to death.  She had little money and no actual plans for lodging when she got to San Antonio. When the young wife walked up to the front gate of Lackland Air Force Base, with nothing but a suitcase, she told the guard, with all the confidence she could muster, she was there to see Private James Stanley.  The guard laughed in her face and abruptly refused her request.  She says she was devastated. She had traveled all those miles alone and had no idea what she was going to do.  Not dealing well with her tears, the guard went and got two more guards for moral support.  Donna smirks now and says she may have played up those tears a little bit more at that point because, “even tough military men were no match for a crying woman.”  Helpless, the three guards had Private Stanley sent to the gate to console his wife. Those tears also earned Donna a complimentary stay at an on-base guest house for the next three days.

The Stanley’s moved back to Northeast Texas after James’ honorable discharge from the air force.  The next few years brought the couple three children, jobs, church activities and friends. James worked and Lone Star Steel, while Donna held the fort down at home.  Money was always tight & the two sacrificed a lot just to feed and clothe their children.  One day, James approached a local dentist and asked if he could be trained in the dental lab to make some extra money.  The dentist looked at James and told him that he should consider not just working in the lab but going to dental school.  James told the dentist he appreciated the suggestion, but he was thirty-three years old with a wife and three kids and there was no way that he could uproot his family and jump off the deep end. Later that night, James mentioned to Donna the suggestion that the dentist had made. Half-way laughing, he told her how crazy that was because they would have no money to do such a thing.  James says with no pause, Donna said, “We don’t have any money now.  What would be the difference?  I think you should give it a shot.” So, with the support of his wife and some school loans, James moved his family to Dallas and began Baylor School of Dentistry.

After graduation, James (then, 37) & Donna moved their children back to Atlanta, TX and set up their dental/orthodontics practice. Half of Atlanta’s adult population attributes their straight to teeth to Dr Stanley. He practiced for 35 years with Donna managing the books for his office.  In 2003, he retired at the age of 72.  Those years brought the pair many blessings including building a home, their children being married and eight grandchildren of which I am the second.

My childhood home was built less than a hundred yards from my Mawmaw and Pawpaw’s house, so they were a constant in my life. From picking blackberries in their backyard to baking cookies with my cousins in their kitchen, there’s hardly a childhood memory that doesn’t have James and Donna Stanley in it. This December, they will celebrate their seventy-first wedding anniversary. SEVENTY-ONE YEARS! I consider myself one of the luckiest people on earth to still go to my grandparent’s house after a hard day’s work and sit at their kitchen table. They have limitless stories I love to hear to hear and sound wisdom that comes from life experiences. As a young mother, I sat at their kitchen table one evening and told Mawmaw how guilty I felt for being a working mom. I’ll never forget her staring me straight in eye and saying that mothers wear many hats and that I needed to pull my own hat down tighter and keep moving. “Your kids know they are loved and they’re going to be just fine.” As usual, she was right. Another time when my children were small, money was almost non-existent, and my stress level was through the roof, I remember sitting at that same kitchen table crying. In that moment, I’ll never forget Pawpaw telling me, “The best time of your life is when all of your children are under one roof, and you don’t have two nickels to rub together.” Through tears, I looked at him like he’d lost his mind. Thinking back on that moment, he too knew exactly what he was talking about. There’s a little more jingle in my pocket now, but all three of my little ones are grown. I’d trade the jingle for my house to be filled with kids again. Knowledge from their own life lessons is what they continue to pour into me as an adult, and I am so thankful for it. 

September 12 was officially Grandparents’ Day. Even if you didn’t know that, I hope you will take a second now to remember your grandparents. Whether they have passed on or are still a part of your life, think about what your grandparents meant to you. Remember the stories they told or ask them to share new ones so you can pass them down to your own children and grandchildren. I was so honored to sit and listen to mine reminisce about their journey together. Though Mawmaw and Pawpaw will be the first to tell you their lives have been filled with hills and valleys, love and loss, they have been so blessed through it all. As I left their house, my notes for this story in hand, I stood at their door and watched Pawpaw open his Bible so he and Mawmaw could read it together. It’s what they do every night. I stood there and watched them, completely overwhelmed. I’m so grateful that my life has been molded by the guy in the ’47 Chevy and his girl in the blue-dotted dress.


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