Lasting Love

By PATTI SELLS, News-Telegram Feature Writer

Feb. 14, 2008 - If given the chance to do life over again, some would jump at the opportunity do things differently. but not Clayton and Elizabeth McGraw, who have been valentine's sweethearts for more than five decades.

If anything, it would seem the opposite applies -- in October, the couple retraced the steps of their honeymoon in the Ozark village of Eureka Springs, Ark., as they celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary.

"We wouldn't change a thing," said Elizabeth. "We've been so blessed that sometimes I just have to pinch myself to think that God would love me enough to give me this wonderful man and this life together."

It was 1950, in Garnett, Kan., when 18-year-old Clayton McGraw first laid eyes on Elizabeth Ann Splawn as she walked with friends through the doors of Franklin's Drug Store, the local hangout where songs were a nickel a play, six for a quarter on the jukebox.

"I was the new girl," said Elizabeth, who had moved to town with her mother from Coffeyville, Kan.

"I told my buddy Clyde, 'There's the girl I'm gonna marry,'" recalled Clayton.

After a couple of months running in the same crowd, Clayton finally got up the nerve to make his first move.

"It was at Christmas and I had come home from school one day when my mother said, 'Some young man brought you a present and put it under our tree,'" Elizabeth recalled. "I thought, 'Well, who in the world could that be?'"

When she opened the gift she found a beautiful royal blue sweater set with a card simply signed, "From, Clayton."

But that wasn't the clincher for Elizabeth, nor was the fact that Clayton was the only boy in the bunch who had an automobile, a 1947 Chevry which the group often crowded into to go to picture shows or community dances.

"The first time I really thought he was something special was one night when we all piled into his car to go to a dance. There had to have been eight or more of us all sitting in each others laps," she remembered. "I was sitting in someone's lap right behind him. and that threw me right up in back of him. And, oh, he smelt so good."

Elizabeth said Clayton was also very clean cut and well-dressed, "creases and all."

"I thought, 'I kind of like that,'" she said, reflecting on the memory.

Later that same night, when a fight erupted outside and everyone gathered around to see what was going on, she really took notice of the sweet-smelling young Clayton.

"Clayton said to me, 'You better step back or you might get hurt,'" she recalled. "I thought to myself right then, 'Maybe I better pay attention to this guy.' Those are the things I remember about Clayton. He was such a gentleman."

From that point on, their relationship began to blossom.

"Our first date we went to a picture show. He was so shy, but he did put his arm around me," Elizabeth said.

Many more dates ensued over the next 15 months, until Clayton worked up the courage to pop the question.

"We had gone out on a regular date and were parked out in front of my house afterwards," remembered Elizabeth. "He pulled out a box from Webster's Jewelry store, with these rings I've worn for 55 years, and asked me to marry him."

A small church wedding was planned for Columbus Day weekend, when Clayton would have three days off from his job in the oil fields.

"It was just going to be a small family wedding. No fancy flowers. No cake," said Elizabeth. "All that mattered to me was that we would be together."

In September, Clayton paid $2 for a marriage license, and $5 for blood tests, a requirement back then.

But when the Oct. 12 wedding date came, the blood test did not.

"It was two or three days before the wedding, and the blood tests were still not back," recalled Elizabeth.

So her mother set about with Plan B. She had heard from a neighbor that couples could wed in Eureka Springs without a blood test, explained Elizabeth, who said a call was made to the courthouse in Eureka Springs, and the information was confirmed by the clerk, Dot Huffman.

Both sets of parents, as well as Clayton's sister, Helen, and her family set out on the seven-hour trek in a caravan of cars to witness the momentous occasion.

The couple arrived at the Carroll County Courthouse that Saturday with their marriage license in hand and hearts full of love.

With the paperwork completed by their parents, Ms. Huffman summoned her own Methodist preacher to perform the nuptials.

The Rev. Charles W. Lewis met the young couple at his church office, questioned them on the sincerity of their love and offering words of wisdom on the importance of commitment.

At 4 o'clock on Saturday, Oct. 12, 1952, an improvised church wedding took place with loved ones looking on from wooden pews, as Elizabeth Ann Splawn became Mrs. Clayton McGraw.

Shortly afterwards, the family convoyed back to, Kansas leaving the newlyweds to honeymoon in the quaint Victorian village nestled in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas.

"My dad sold a calf for $35 and gave that to us for a wedding gift. That's what we took our honeymoon on," said Clayton. laughing and recalling dinners for 50 cents apiece and a cabin room with knotty pine walls for $3 a night at the Pine Lodge on Highway 62.

The couple feasted on chicken and dumplings for dinner at the Basin Park Hotel and enjoyed sightseeing at Pivot Rock and Natural Bridge, Blue Springs, Inspiration Point and Onyx Cave.

Everything was wonderful and new for the young couple, who were happy to return home to a small apartment they rented for $35 a month and start their new life together.

But wonderful soon turned to worry four months later when Clayton was drafted into the U.S. Army and was shipped overseas to serve his country during the Korean War. Clayton said it "wasn't a surprise -- I expected it."

"But that was probably the hardest time of our marriage, being apart and all," he said.

After two years of service, Clayton returned home to his wife, as well as to his life working in the oil fields.

Three years later the McGraws started a family, raising three young sons, and moving from town to town and state to state with Clayton's work.

In 1973, Clayton was transferred to Birthright, which brought him and his family to Cooper, where they lived until 1980. All three of their sons graduated from Cooper High School, with two marrying during that time, before Clayton was transferred again, this time to South Texas.

In 1989, Clayton retired from Phillips Petroleum, and he and Elizabeth decided to make Hopkins County their home in order to be near their children and grandchildren.

Looking back through their 55 years together, the Claytons said they recall a lot of special times; the birth of their children, raising a family, planting gardens, canning fruits and vegetables, family vacations, Boy Scouting and making lots of homemade ice cream.

"Sometimes I would love to go back and live those years again," admitted Elizabeth.

"Maybe with a little more money," added Clayton with a laugh.

On Valentine's Day, Elizabeth is sure to get the red roses she adores so much, and, most likely, a nice dinner out.

"I always tried to bring her roses, but there were lots of times when she had to cook her own valentine meal," said Clayton. "We weren't always able to go out."

"But that was OK," said Elizabeth. "We were always just happy to have each other."

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