North couple celebrates 76 years
It started with looking at a picture in a high school yearbook and blossomed into a marriage in the dying days of World War II.
Dorothy and Wilbur Coates can truthfully say they have one of the longest marriages in the country, having recently celebrated their 76th wedding anniversary with family and friends at the home in North Fort Myers they share with their daughter.
Wilbur, a retired pastor, and Dorothy, both 96, have seen a lot in their years together. They raised four children, lived through 14 presidencies, saw Neil Armstrong walk the moon and Michael Jackson rise to international stardom. And they have seen Southwest Florida go from not much more than a swamp to one of the fastest growing areas in the country.
They have also seen Wilbur open churches here in Southwest Florida and spend his entire life serving his congregations and God, no matter how big or how small.
But it started in a small town in Kansas where, in 1943, Wilbur was shown a yearbook by a friend. Inside was a photo of Dorothy.
“The person I was looking at it with told me about her and it stirred an interest that started there,” Wilbur said of Dorothy, who was born in Denver and moved to Kansas as a small child. Her mother died days after she was born.
“He was singing in a male quartet at a very small school. They sang well and had been traveling that summer, so most of our talking was through letters and mail,” Dorothy said.
Wilbur and Dorothy like to joke that he married an older lady. Their birthdays are five days apart.
The two were married in 1945, which almost didn’t happen because they were unaware that Dorothy would also had to sign the marriage license, as they were to be wed in Denver. This was the afternoon before they were to marry.
“We had to find her and they kept the office open until we got back,” Wilbur remembered. “On our honeymoon, there was a flash flood and the cabin we were in leaked.”
Wilbur was training to be a pastor and was going to serve as a chaplain, but the war ended about the time they got married.
“We were so grateful the war was over. What a terrible thing. I spent my whole life pastoring churches,” Wilbur said.
Wilbur started his first church in Missouri and spent nine years there, serving as a teacher at their school to bring more money to the family.
When Dorothy got psoriasis, the doctor suggested they move to a warmer climate, so they came to Florida in 1963, where Wilbur would pastor churches for 58 years.
He started churches in Pinellas Park, where he spent 17 years before coming locally to found churches in Golden Gate and Naples before being asked to start a church in Cape Coral, Calvary Wesleyan (then to Diplomat Wesleyan) in 1988.
When Wilbur retired in 1997, he started services at Serendipity Mobile Home Park, which he did for 19 years until 2016.
The pastoring genes did not leave the family. Wilbur’s father was a pastor who wedded them. And one of Wilbur’s sons has been a youth pastor in North Carolina for years.
Another son, John Coates, has been in the music industry in Nashville as an arranger for 37 years. The third son, Wilbur Wesley, died at age 19. Marilyn is their only daughter and the couple now lives with her.
The Coates couple has lived to see a daughter and son celebrate their 50th wedding anniversaries and just celebrated the birth of their 18th great-grandchild, the oldest of whom is 22.
When asked how their marriage has lasted so long, they said faith has a lot to do with it.
“It’s being able to understand each other. We have our ups and down and disagreements, but that’s normal,” Wilbur said. “When we said till death do you part, we meant it.”
“The Christian way of living, I don’t think you can do without that. It’s till death do you part,” Dorothy said.