By Sean Barron
It might be easy for many people to assume that anyone married for more than 60 years would have few surprises left in their marriage.
But don’t tell that to Don “Barney” Barnhart.
“I was totally flabbergasted. I wouldn’t put anything past her,” Barnhart said, referring to a recent surprise meal his wife, Marilyn, prepared for him at their Como Street home in Struthers. “She’s good at that stuff.”
For about two years, however, Marilyn Barnhart, 81, has been a resident of Shepherd of the Valley, a nursing-care facility at 7148 West Blvd. She spoke recently from her room about having surprised her 83-year-old husband by preparing his favorite meal of fried chicken, baked potato, green beans, tossed salad, applesauce and chocolate pie — at their residence.
Among those helping with the surprise meal and gathering April 26 were daughters Donna Barnhart and Terry Stephenson, who took her father out to breakfast as a diversion while facility staff took Marilyn to the couple’s home.
“I cooked the meal, and he came in around 3 o’clock. He was never so surprised; his face was beaming,” she said with laughter.
The meal took just under two hours to prepare for her husband of 62 years, Marilyn continued.
Complementing the elaborate setup were fancy napkins and tablecloth, a flower bouquet and lighted candles — as well as lots of hugs and conversation, she added.
While Don was surprised, Marilyn was grateful to return for the first time in two years to the home they had bought in 1959, she recalled.
“I knew where everything was; everything was where it was when I left,” she said.
When he’s not reacting favorably to his wife’s cooking prowess, Don is probably visiting her, something he does starting at 2 or 3 p.m. each day.
Marilyn said she deeply appreciates the daily visits, along with shopping and other tasks her husband performs for her.
“They accept me as a fixture here. I’m a semi- resident,” said Don, who retired in 1995 after having worked 50 years for Donnell Ford in Boardman as a mechanic, salesman and service manager.
Actually, surprise gatherings are nothing new to Don. He was the centerpiece of one when he retired from the car dealership, he recalled.
Helping to make the surprise possible was a national program called Second Wind Dreams, founded in 1997 “to enhance and embrace the quality of life for people in elder-care communities and change the perception of aging via educational programs and fulfilling people’s dreams,” its mission statement says.
All Mahoning Valley Shepherd of the Valley locations are Second Wind members, noted Kim Osborn, the facility’s activities director.
Staff members collaborate with residents and their families in an effort to make the residents’ wishes come true, she explained.
“They are wonderful people,” Osborn said of the Barnharts. “When I told [Marilyn] about the program, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. There was no hesitation.”