Between the two of them, newlyweds Johnny and Debra Peters-Smith have been married almost 95 years. The widower and widow were married Jan. 11 and recently returned from a two-week honeymoon to Florida.
After being caregivers for their spouses, the Smiths are enjoying pampering and spoiling one another. Johnny had been married to Patsy for 55 years when she passed away in September 2018. Debra buried her husband, Charlie Peters, on their 39th anniversary in August 2017.
While the couple is excited about their new life together, they don’t shy away from talking about family memories from their previous marriages.
“We try to keep their memories alive, and as much as we love each other, we try to make sure our girls know we haven’t forgotten about their father and mother,” Debra said.
Johnny and Debra are pleased to have their families’ approval for their union. Each of them has one daughter.
“They are all on board,” Debra said. “All are tickled for us, especially our daughters. They don’t have to worry about us now.”
She added her daughter’s family fell in love with Johnny instantly. “They just clicked,” she said. As the couple was getting to know one another, Debra said her daughter, Jamie Campbell, told her, “Now Mom, don’t mess this up. If you don’t keep him, we will.”
Both Debra and Johnny’s spouses had suffered from vascular dementia, with Charlie’s at a moderate level and Patsy’s at a more advanced stage. Toward the end of Charlie’s life, he became prone to falls and needed more care. In desperate need of respite, Debra had him cared for at Fork Mountain Rest Home where she said he was quite happy. Before he could come home and hospice could start helping the family, he died from a massive heart attack.
Meanwhile, Johnny was a caregiver for Patsy, who not only had vascular dementia, but also neurological issues, including ataxia. Confined to bed, she died at home under the care of hospice.
In July 2017, Johnny and Patsy went to Fork Mountain Rest Home to visit a friend. While there, they saw Debra, who was visiting Charlie. Johnny and Debra thought they had met before. They discovered that about 25 years before, Johnny, then working as an administrator with transportation for Franklin County Public Schools, had helped Debra with a bus need for her daughter.
About a week later their paths crossed again while they were out to eat, with their respective families. They casually kept in touch, sharing reading materials relating to caregiving.
During this time, their paths crossed again with Debra calling upon Johnny to see if he could use his former connections to assist her with a busing need she had for her granddaughter.
In time, Charlie passed away and about a year later, Patsy did as well. In his loss, Johnny said he became terribly lonely and lost.
“I volunteered at the Harvester and worked nearly every show,” Charlie said. “They were my family. They saved me.”
Meanwhile, Debra had been writing in her prayer journal. “I knew I was really empty. I asked God for a sense of direction, saying, ‘If you decide to send me somebody to love, I wanted them to love me with all their heart and soul and spoil me, and I want to do the same for them.’ ”
The door opened on Jan. 11, 2019 when Johnny and Debra saw each other at a concert by the Robey Family at Phoebe Needles. After that they seemed to keep bumping into one another and were exchanging texts.
Debra said, “We knew we were interested in each other, but we didn’t talk about it.”
The couple said they felt so comfortable with one another and never had the nervousness that can come with dating. They knew the relationship was headed toward marriage, and on Jan.11, they were married by Pastor Jimmy Calhoun at Maple Grove United Methodist Church in Ferrum. It wasn’t until later the couple realized that their meeting at Phoebe Needles in 2019 had been on Jan. 11.
Calhoun said when they met for pre-marital counseling he could tell they were ready to be married.
“It was very evident from the first time I saw them together,” he said. “If ever two people deserved to be together, it’s Debra and Johnny because they embody love and happiness.”
The couple said they had a great time at their wedding, which was attended by more than 150 family members and friends. The theme was western and everyone dressed the part, including the pastor who wore his blue jeans. After the ceremony, the couple and their guests enjoyed barbecue and a band.
As Johnny reflected on life with his new bride, he said, “My cup overflows. I have a companion, an energetic travel buddy and someone who likes do the same things I do. Life is good now. We’re happier with each other than we were alone. I definitely know it’s a God thing. We hadn’t seen each other in over 25 years and then we saw each other twice in one week.”
Debra and Johnny are both quick to say how blessed they’ve been with church family and friends and how much they appreciated their caregivers and Carilion’s doctors, hospice workers and nurses, as well as neighbors and their pastor.
The newlyweds are living in Debra’s house in Ferrum. Next year, they plan to build a house in Rocky Mount. In the meantime, they are looking forward to doing a lot of traveling. Johnny is retired from the school system and Debra continues to work part time as beautician, her trade for the past 35 years.
The couple celebrated Valentine’s Day early by enjoying a dinner out and visiting friends. Johnny will volunteer at the Harvester Friday night for The Earls of Leicester show.