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Five sisters have celebrated 50th wedding anniversaries

Garvin and Sandy Stevens have been married fifty years and live near UND where they first met. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
Garvin and Sandy Stevens retired to Grand Forks several years ago. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Sandy Stevens and her sisters. From right to left: Sandy Stevens, Ruth Brown, Molly Kemnitz, Kay Walstad, Betty Rinde.3 / 3

Fifty-two years ago, Garvin Stevens and Sandy Bestland met while boating with friends at Maple Lake near Mentor, Minn., about 50 miles east of Grand Forks.  

She was a UND student and he was returning to UND — after military service in France and a couple years of teaching — to earn a master’s degree.

It was love at first sight, Garvin remembered.

“Pretty much,” Sandy said.

They married six months later. 

“I was very fortunate, very fortunate,” he said.

Garvin was six years older than Sandy, who was nearly 22 when she married.

“He was ready; I was ready,” she said.  

Their marriage has lasted more than 50 years.

So have the marriages of all of Sandy’s four siblings, the daughters of Martin and Myrtle Bestland, who raised their family in Crystal and Grafton, N.D., and in California, where Sandy, the youngest, graduated high school.

Sandy’s sisters and their husbands are: Ruth and Bill Brown of Fort Collins, Colo., married in December 1961; Molly and Myron Kemnitz of Cavalier, N.D., married in June 1955; Kay and Wayne Walstad of Fort Worth, Texas, married in March 1951, and Betty and Robert Rinde, Grand Forks, married in November 1949. Robert Rinde passed away in 2013.

“We’ve lost one of our brothers-in-law,” said Ruth Brown, “but before that, we (sisters) were all … living with our original spouses. It’s pretty amazing.” 

The summer after Garvin and Sandy Stevens married in December 1962, they moved to Williston, where he became administrator of UND’s branch campus, serving in that role for 33 years.

They raised their children, Stephanie and Bradley, in Williston, which was the “perfect” setting to raise a family, Garvin said. He later earned a doctorate at UND.

Garvin was originally from the Williston area; his parents, Loyd and Tilla Stevens, operated a farm in McKenzie County near Watford City, said Garvin, who first came to UND on a football scholarship.  

Shared values, luck

Reflecting on the key to a long and happy union, Sandy said, “It’s hard to know why anything is a success.”

Having “similar goals and values” was an important factor, she said, adding, “I think a whole lot of luck is involved.”

Garvin agreed.

“Luck, and an understanding partner. I’m not the easiest guy to live with,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of fun. It helps to have two good kids.”

Although she did “a little” kindergarten teaching early on in Williston, for the most part Sandy was a stay-at-home mom, she said. “That was sort of the norm then. That’s what we all did.

“I was perfectly happy in that role.”

Ruth Brown echoed her sister’s views on shared values.

She and her husband, Bill, hold the same values “about how people should live their lives,” she said. “It solves a lot of problems when you agree on those basic things.”

Brown also maintains that sharing a history contributes to a strong and lasting marriage, pointing to the fact that, as UND students, she and Bill met as teenagers.

“It’s wonderful to have that history.”

Over the years, when she and Bill, now in their 70s, return to the campus for Homecoming, “we see friends we knew in our 20s,” Ruth said.

“It wasn’t love at first sight,” she said. “It started as friendship and it developed from there.

“It was a plus that we were friends first.”    

Universal optimism    

“I think everyone gets married with the idea that it’s going to last,” Sandy said.

Like most brides, she had to adjust to married life, she said. “I think there are always adjustments — no matter who you marry.” 

And did Garvin?

“I’m sure he did,” she said with a laugh.

When a problem or disagreement arose, “we pretty much sat down and discussed it,” she said.

Brown said she and her husband would “exchange words” from time to time.

“We’re not afraid to get in each other’s face and share our opinion,” but there’s no swearing and nothing physical, she said. Sometimes their children were present.

“We felt it was important for (the children) to learn how to argue in the right way,” she said, “and to know that this will all pass and that the world wasn’t going to end.”

In the decades since the Bestland sisters married, divorce has been more common. Sandy speculates that’s “because it’s easy, or maybe because people are looking for perfection (in a partner). I don’t know.

“Divorce was a word that never even crossed my mind.”

She attributes her commitment to marriage to the way she was raised, she said.

“I can’t imagine my mother’s reaction if I came home and said I was getting divorced.”

Her mother approved of her and her sisters’ choices of husbands, she said.

“My mother always said, ‘I have five daughters, and I have five wonderful sons-in-law.’”

Brown said her parents didn’t offer her advice about marriage; they taught by example.

“We could observe their marriage, but it wasn’t something they would be comfortable talking about it.”

She and her sisters learned that “you just hung in there with the person you chose,” she said. “We just assumed that’s what you do — but not that you stay in a horrible situation.”

Likewise, she and Bill did not offer marital advice to their children, she said.

Each was well into adulthood when married, she said, and each “chose a partner who we thought were good choices.”

Sandy, too, didn’t give advice about marriage.

“I’m pretty good at telling my kids what I think,” she said. “But (marriage) is such a personal thing, I think you have to sort of work through it on your own.”  

Pillars of marriage

If there are any essential ingredients to a strong and lasting marriage, Sandy said, mutual respect and ability to compromise would likely top the list.

“You have to be willing to compromise and be respectful of each other,” she said.

In her marriage, respect was “just there,” she said. “If you’re raised that way, I think it isn’t an issue.”     

To any woman who thinks she can change her boyfriend after they’re married, Sandy said, “I don’t think that works. It’s pretty much what you see is what you get, I think.

“People do change over the years. When you’re living with someone, perhaps you change in the same ways — maybe you mellow with age.”  

Sandy’s expectations of marriage were basically confirmed in time.

“It ended up being pretty much how I expected it would be,” she said, adding that it’s “fairly similar” to her parents’ marriage. 

But “there are no guarantees,” she said. “That’s where the luck comes in.”

For the Stevens, family has been at the center of their lives.

“The major focus of most of our lives has been family — and still is,” Sandy said. “And now we have two grandchildren.”

Being a parent is the “hardest and most important” job there is.

With more than 50 years of marriage behind them, “our greatest reward is our family,” Sandy said. “I just think when you spend your whole life raising children and they go out in the world and are successful, you have accomplished something.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing your children have a good life on their own and be successful.”