A Christmas fairy tale: Couple renew their vows 50 years later

Robert and Martha Smith hold hands and repeat their commitment as their son-in-law, Navy Commander Jeffry Sandin, performs the ceremony.
Staff Writer

The car got him a look. He did the rest.

And with another “I do” Monday night, West Point native Martha Boswell Smith and Robert Smith Jr. continued to write their Christmas fairy tale by renewing their wedding vows in the place they were married 50 years ago.

She even wore her original wedding gown.

It began with a cameo cream Chevrolet Camaro in the summer of 1967. Martha Boswell was 18 and had just graduated from West Point High School. She was working that summer in the admissions office at Mississippi State College for Women, now called MUW, before entering school there that fall.

The previous September, she’d seen an ad in the Daily Times Leader for an exciting addition to the Chevy line -- the Camaro.

“I used to drive by Bishop Chevrolet and drool over the one in the showroom, dreaming about having one,” she remembered.

A friend at work wanted to hook her up on a blind date with a friend of a friend. She wasn’t interested. But as they were walking down the street one day in July, he drove by.

“That’s him,” the friend said.

He was driving a cameo cream Camaro. The ‘him’ was 20-year-old Robert R. Smith Jr., who’d just completed a two-year hitch in the Navy and moved to Columbus to work for his uncle. The uncle was David Smith, who owned Dave's Auto Trim Shop on College Street just down from the university campus.

“The car got the date, the rest was all him,” Martha recalled. “He didn’t know until later it was the car, that if he’d been driving something else we might not have been.”

He obviously made an impression. He proposed in late August on the banks of what was known as Iggy's Pond on the edge of the MSU campus. They kept the engagement a secret until Sept. 13, 1967.

"It didn't take me long being around her to feel like I'd known her all my life. It truly was love at first sight," Robert says of the quick courtship.

Pastor David Mahaffey, who is now retired and living in Georgia, married them Dec. 25, 1967 -- also a Monday -- at 7 p.m. at Siloam Baptist Church in western Clay County.
“A small wedding at a small country church,” according to Martha.

She completed her freshman year at ‘the W” and meanwhile, Robert, who says he never thought he'd go to college, enrolled the now-closed Wood College in West Point at the suggestion of a friend.

Martha became pregnant and Robert eventually completed three semesters at Wood and transferred to Mississippi State. Their first daughter was born 13 months after their marriage.

A second daughter came later.

Robert graduated from MSU in 1972. He worked at General Tire in Columbus for a year and re-enlisted in the Navy. He went all over and the couple called several places in the Golden Triangle home during the time.

He graduated from State in 1978 with a master's in vocational rehabilitation and the Navy and a combination of other factors landed them in Norfolk, Virginia.

They've been there ever since.

With their daughters getting older, Martha went to work in 1983 at Regent University, which had opened five years earlier.

A few years later, she returned to her education, also at Regent, eventually achieving a bachelor's and master's. She earned her law degree in 2014 and is now vice president of human resources and administration and teaches at Regent, which is known as one of the top Christian universities in the nation.

Along the way, she also spent six years in the Navy Reserve.

"A poor little country girl has turned into an outstanding executive," Robert said admiringly of his bride.

Their careers may have taken them away, but their hearts haven't left West Point.

Martha’s parents remained in Clay County until their deaths, living in Cedar Bluff after moving there from West Point. Her two sisters, Sheila Brewer and Gena Arney, still live in Clay County.
In fact, Brewer lives in the home her parents built in Cedar Bluff.

“A lot of my family still is here, it's always home. I’ve got so many friends that we’ve stayed in touch with during the years. Many of them still live in West Point or in the area,” Martha explained.
They’ve returned for a high school class reunion every 10 years and seen the community’s ups and downs.

“When we were here 10 years ago, West Point really was going through a depressed time with Bryan Foods closing. We came back this year and everything looked so good. West Point has just revitalized,” Martha observed.

On one of those trips back, she mentioned the Camaro advertisement and West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson, a long-time friend from their youth, suggested she find it from the old newspapers. She did and it now has a prominent place in their wedding book.

This year’s reunion trip sparked some other ideas.

"Someone asked if we’d ever been to the Prairie Arts Festival and we hadn’t so we decided to come this year. That’s when Robert suggested we renew our vows and do it at the same time we got married,” Martha described.

So Monday night, at 7 p.m. sharp, Siloam Baptist pastor Doran Henry started the ceremony singing "O Perfect Love," the same song Rell Webber sang on Dec. 25, 1967.

Their two daughters -- Shana Lynn Sandin and Celia Lorraine Giovannone -- were the maids of honor. One son-in-law, Brian Giovannone, served as the best man. The other, Navy Commander Jeffry Sandin, performed part of the ceremony, tying the couple's union to the Biblical story of Ruth and Boaz.

So it begs the question of why a Christmas marriage in the first place. Like the renewal ceremony, it, too, was Robert's idea.

"I just felt this real connection to God, I thought it would be a neat thing to celebrate the birth of our life together with the birth of Christ," Robert explained.

"My closeness with God started at 13. I was living in Houston, Texas at the time and a Southern Baptist preacher rolled up and said come to church with me. I went by myself and accepted God. The Lord has been a savior for me ever since," Robert continued, saying that day when he was 13 helped change what had been a disruptive childhood.

"Fifty years later, it just made sense to come back where it started. This ceremony is just as important as it was then. It's been 50 years in spite of us. The Lord has been doing it," he added.

As the couple stood with their hands together in the pulpit, a manger scene fittingly sat at their feet. For them, with her wearing the same gown made by Mrs. Audrey Greene, the mother of a high school friend, Betty Greene, it could have been 50 years ago.

Ironically, while mom and dad remained composed, it was the two daughters who came to tears.

"It brings the reality of where we all are in life. How precious time is," Shana, the oldest daughter, said of the ceremony.

"It confirms their commitment to our family, that we really are rooted in love. It's so special to see where they were married. We've always considered this to be home in some ways," echoed Celia, the youngest.

As they held hands, what were their thoughts?

"How pretty she is," Robert said, almost bashfully. "How good it's always been and will be. How much I do love her."

"That I wouldn't change a thing. I'm so glad God brought us together. The first time I met him I knew I belonged with this person. There's never been a doubt about it," Martha added. "You know, it really is like a fairy tale written by God."

The couple have simple words of wisdom or other couples on the secret to a long life together.

"You can't be selfish. If you are selfish, you won't make it," he advised.

Their reception was a bit of a tribute to what has gone before.

The music was a mix of their old favorites, like "As Long as I Have You" by Elvis Presley and slightly newer hits such as "Everything I Do I Do for You" by Bryan Adams and "You're Still the One" by Shania Twain.

Food highlighted the places they've lived -- ham biscuits, sausage balls and Virginia peanuts for Virginia, pecan pie for Texas, coconut cake for Alabama, pralines for South Carolina and Elvis Presley cake for Mississippi.

True to the hometown roots, Carol Lummus, who owns Main Street Market in West Point with her husband, made most of the items.

Those roots in Clay County also may bring them back one day.

On one of their trips this year, they bought a vacant lot, with two pecan trees, on Grove Street.

"As soon as I get done with my work at the university, we could come back here, that is a thought. I'm ready to get out of Virginia," Martha concluded.