Small town romance

Doris McKenzie remembers when she first saw the young man who would later become her husband.

It was a case of bemusement at first sight.

It was September 1956 and John McKenzie was fresh out of the Army. While he was in the service, his parents had moved from tiny Mendota, Ill., to even dinkier Tampico, Ill. So upon his separation from the military, he left Fort Sheridan and paid his first visit to Tampico.

"My grandfather was delegated to show me the town," John says.

There really wasn't much to show, Doris admits. The business district was a block long; fortunately for both of them, one of the businesses was her beauty shop. And she happened to look out the window as John got out of his grandfather's car.

"He looked up the street one way," she says. "Then he looked the other way. You could read the expression on his face: 'What kind of a town is this?'"

At his grandfather's suggestion, John went into the shop. "(He said), 'I want you to meet this nice lady.'"

One thing led to another, and soon they started seeing each other.

"I think for our first date we probably went bowling," says John, 77, sitting in the McKenzies' North Aurora home. "Or to a movie. One of the two. We just hit it off."

"Yeah, no arguments," adds Doris, 84, from the comfort of her nearby recliner.

Their age difference — he was 20, she was 27 — was never a factor.

"Today she'd be called a cougar," John says. "Back then it was called robbing the cradle."

Less than a year later, the Catholic soon-to-be-college-student and the Methodist beautician married in Tampico.

"Her mother had said, 'What time is the wedding?'" John recalls. "Doris told her 11 o'clock, and to sort of paraphrase, she said, 'Well, we don't know much about them Catholics, so we probably won't be there.' But who was in the front row on the bride's side of the church? Her mother and father. I couldn't have had better in-laws."

The McKenzies' marriage — their 56th anniversary is Aug. 24 — produced four sons and a daughter (they also have seven grandchildren). John has spent 53 years teaching, most recently as a substitute in District 129 in Aurora. He also has a part-time gig working security with the Cubs. Doris had her beauty shop and later went into a 25-year career in retail with Kresge's and Kmart.

"The day I turned 62 I retired," she says. "I survived three cancer surgeries and I decided it was time to quit work and enjoy life a little."

Between the beauty shop and the Kresge and Kmart jobs there were the kids.

"I had too many kids to take care of — five in six years," she says, explaining why she left the beauty business.

(John's take on the youngsters: "We discovered a problem with the water. We put in a water softener and solved all the pregnancy problems.")

After their wedding, they moved to Normal, where he would get his bachelor's (1960) and master's (1965) degrees in education from Illinois State University. Then there were moves to the small Illinois towns of Coleta and La Moille for teaching jobs before District 129 called in 1962. John became a fixture in the district as a math teacher. They both were active in the PTA and Boy Scouts (their four sons, like John before them, were Eagle Scouts, and the five of them have a combined 210 years in scouting).

With five children, the McKenzie house on Aurora's New York Street was busy.

"The first one up in the morning put the diapers in the washing machine," John says. "By the time we sat down to eat breakfast, they were probably in the dryer. We had a routine."

Running the house was a family effort. They taught the kids to run the vacuum, how to use the washer and dryer, to cook, to do the dishes by hand. It seems to have worked.

"All five went to college, four graduated with degrees," Doris says. "They're all self-sufficient, gainfully employed."

"And we always had a rule," John explains. "As long as you were in school you could live at home. We thought that was pretty important. We didn't ask them to contribute financially, but they could do other things — fix meals, do the dishes. That was the trade-off."

They also fashioned another strategy all parents should consider before calling it quits on their marriage.

"One of our secrets," Doris says, "we always said that if anyone wanted out of the marriage, they'd have to take all the kids and all the bills."

"The first one to touch the doorknob got the kids," John agrees.

That was never close to happening, of course — "She's the love of my life," John says, smiling — and the McKenzies now spend time with their family and hanging around their North Aurora home.

"We read a lot, watch some television," John says. "She likes computer games, sometimes. If she can't win at solitaire she doesn't like them."

He also is in his 10th year with the Cubs. He spent two years as an usher and for the last eight has worked crowd control. He currently works at Gate L, where employees and food-service workers enter Wrigley Field. Typically he leaves home well before 6 to grab a train into the city and makes sure to get home for dinner.

"You have to keep busy," John says. "If you don't keep busy you will deteriorate quickly."

Love lesson

"We just went to our grand-nephew's wedding," John says. "My only advice was, 'You can't go to bed mad. You have to kiss good night and say I love you.'"

Doris agrees. "Young people don't stop and think what they're fighting about," she says. "Tomorrow it won't be an issue."

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