Today they celebrate 75 years of marriage, but party must wait amid COVID-19 outbreak

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Lillian and Emil Zapalski of Dearborn Heights share some of the secrets to staying together and happy for 75 years with News reporter Ariana Taylor. The Detroit News

Lillian Jaszek thought she was doing her civic duty when she wrote to her neighbor Emil Zapalski every week while he was deployedin the Coast Guard across the Atlantic during World War II. 

Lillian had no idea those letters would be the start of a love story that would stretch past seven decades.

She had no idea they’d spend their lives together, though they grew up with each other, stealing kisses through the fence between their homes on Waldo Street in Detroit. 

And Lillian had no idea they would have to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary Tuesday quarantined at home in Dearborn Heights.  

After months of planning, and over a hundred invitations sent out, Lillian, 96, and Emil, 97, had to cancel their party because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

“It’s something that we thought we would never, never have to experience … it’s so sad,” Lillian said.

Lillian and Emil had small celebrations for their 25th and 50th anniversaries, but this year was going to be a big deal. 

The couple, who got married April 14, 1945, as the war was entering its final months, had rented a hall at Stefan’s Banquets center in Redford Township for their anniversary celebration April 26.

They invited everyone they knew, from their neighbors and the woman who cleans their house to their favorite restaurant owner. They even had professional pictures taken for the party, three days before Michigan had its first confirmed COVID-19 cases on March 10.

Lillian decided to cancel the party before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer even implemented her stay-at-home order March 23. What hurt, she said, was realizing she wouldn’t be able to hug everyone who would have come. 

“We’ll make sure you’ll have a very nice dinner,” said their daughter, Barbara Ganshorn, 62. “Maybe we’ll do a 75.5-year party in the fall.

This is the first anniversary the couple aren’t doing anything special to celebrate their love. 

Emil proposed to Lillian on Sweetest Day in 1944, they walked down the road to George’s Coney Island on Michigan Avenue to commemorate their engagement with coney dogs. 

When they had kids, they would send them off to family members and go somewhere overnight to “rekindle their love” on their anniversary.

“We’re patient with each other,” Lillian said as Emil nodded and crossed his fingers. “We never argue, we never went to sleep mad at each other … we just take one day at a time, and that’s it.”

Emil was on leave when he proposed to Lillian and told her whenever he got a 30-day leave, that’s when they would get married. 

A few months later, Emil got his leave on April 1, 1945, and they planned their wedding in 13 days. There wasn’t enough time to mail invitations, so they called their guests to invite them to the wedding and ask for their meat rations, since the country was still suffering shortages caused by the war effort. 

The wedding was small, with only about 50 people invited. Since most men had been drafted into the war, they went to the USO and asked if the soldiers there would like to dance with the women at their wedding. 

For their honeymoon, Emil and Lillian went to New York City, where they stayed long enough to experience V-E Day on May 8 in Times Square. 

Emil and Lillian have five children, eight grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. They’re still in love, Lillian said, as they hugged each other. 

Emil calls Lillian by her Polish name, Lodzia, and says she’s a great gardener. 

Their children and grandchildren share in the disappointment of having to cancel the celebration.

“If anything, this was for us, because we are never going to see somebody have 75 years of marriage in our lifetime,” said their grandson, Neil Ganshorn, 31. 

Since the stay-at-home order, they sit on the couch and watch the 7 p.m. Mass at St. Linus Church in Dearborn Heights and then “Jeopardy!” right after. Every morning for breakfast, Emil peels oranges and Lillian separates them into pieces. 

There’s one secret to how Emil and Lillian have lasted in marriage for so long. It’s a secret she tells her kids and grandkids at their weddings. 

“Don’t nag but suggest,” Lillian said. “I tell that to all the people … never nag your husband.”

Every year, Emil and Lillian’s church, Our Lady of Grace in Dearborn Heights, has an anniversary Mass. Everyone who’s married stands up. The priest says, “If you’ve been married for less than a year sit down, if you’ve been married for less than five years sit down” and so on. 

Every year, Emil and Lillian are the last couple standing. 

When asked what’s it like being married for 75 years, Emil said, “I could still go for another 75.”

ataylor@detroitnews.com

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