February 9, 2015

After 72 Years of Marriage, a Church Leader Prepares Wife for His Death

Francis Wernick, a pastor, conference president, and former vice president of the General Conference, spent much of his life proclaiming the Advent message of Jesus’ soon coming to people around the world.

These days Wernick, who is seriously ill, is encouraging his wife of 72 years, Mary Sue, to keep her eyes fixed on that hope as he prepares her for his death.

Wernick, 95, has lung disease, likely brought on by old age, and has had several close calls in recent days, said the couple’s eldest child, Brenda Flemmer, 64.

Wernick himself is ready to go, his children said. But he also wants to make sure that his college sweetheart, who turned 95 on Feb. 3 and is 10 days younger than him, is ready to say goodbye.

“My dad is ready to meet Jesus. He wants to go to sleep and rest,” said his son, Robert Wernick, 57.

“When he talks to my mom about this, he reminds her that Jesus is coming soon and they will not be apart very long, to stay faithful, and there is a better life ahead,” he said. “My mom believes this, but after 72 years of marriage it is hard to say goodbye, even for a little while.”

Francis Wernick, a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist born in Lake City, Iowa, met Mary Sue at the library where she worked at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. Mary Sue Huffines, a native Texan, had studied the first two years at Southwestern Junior College, now Southwestern Adventist University, in Keene, Texas.

“My mom jokes that she went to Union College with the intent of finding a husband,” Robert Wernick said.

Francis and Mary Sue were in their final year of college when they met, and he was preparing to graduate with a ministerial degree that would allow him to become a pastor.

Within months they were engaged, and they married on the evening of May 24, 1942, just hours after attending their graduation ceremony in the morning.

The wedding, held at the Union College church, was inexpensive, and the decorations were homemade. The officiating pastor was Jerry Pettis, who went on to serve as a California Republican lawmaker in the House of Representatives from 1966 until his 1975 death in a private plane crash at the age of 58.

Francis and Mary Sue Wernick posing with their children, Robert, Brenda, center, and Carolyn, at Robert Wernick's home in Ooltewah, Tennessee, in November 2014. All photos courtesy of the Wernick family

Married, With Orange Crates for Furniture

Two days after the wedding, the couple headed to North Dakota so Francis Wernick could begin his ministry.

“I never got the feeling they spent a lot of time analyzing whether or not they were right for each other, but both were praying that they would find the right person and trusted God to lead,” said Robert Wernick, who retired after 32 years in the energy industry in 2012 and began caring for his parents at his home in Ooltewah, Tennessee, near Southern Adventist University.

Everything the Wernicks owned was packed into their car for the move to North Dakota, and they started life together with orange crates as furniture. It took some time before they were able to acquire chairs, a table, and a bed. They also rented a room in someone’s house for most of their four years in North Dakota and didn’t own their own home until much later.

Francis and Mary Sue Wernick posing for their wedding photo in May 1942.
“I believe that their thought processes were much different than we have today in that they saw life as a set of responsibilities to both each other and to God, and they genuinely wanted to faithfully meet those,” Robert Wernick said. “What the world had to offer never seemed very important to them.”

After North Dakota, Francis Wernick led churches in Pennsylvania and Ohio and then accepted an invitation to become president of the Adventist Church’s East Pennsylvania Conference in 1958.

Wernick later served as president of the Ohio and Oregon conferences and was the president of the Lake Union Conference when he was asked to help lead the world church as a general vice president of the General Conference in 1975.

He held the position for 10 years, under presidents Robert H. Pierson and Neal C. Wilson, and retired in 1985 near the General Conference headquarters in the Washington area. He and his wife moved in with their son in Tennessee in 2012.

Secret to 72 Years of Marriage

The life of church service sometimes presented challenges, but the couple developed a close relationship that no crisis could breach, Robert Wernick said.

“I never saw a major crisis in the marriage, although I know at times my mom would have liked to have dad at home more rather then out in the field supporting the work,” he said.

“My parents always believed God founded the marriage,” he said. “They trusted Him to help them keep it together and the home happy. They did their part and let God do the rest.”

Mary Sue Wernick never worked outside the home, a decision that allowed her to raise three children, Brenda, Robert, and a younger daughter, Carolyn Jimenez.

“We lived modestly and always had plenty of what we needed,” Robert Wernick said. “Given the commitment my dad had for the church and the time and energy he spent working for it, she had plenty to do to keep the home and raise the kids.”

But 72 years of marriage is a rarity, especially in rich countries where the average length of marriage before divorce is 13.6 years, according to data published by The Economist magazine last year. U.S. government statistics indicate that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, and those that do collapse only last an average of eight years.

The Wernicks in an undated photo taken for a church directory.

A healthy Adventist lifestyle could certainly be seen as a contributor to the longevity of the Wernicks’ lives — and by extension their marriage. But their son said the secret to their successful marriage is much more: selflessness and a combined commitment to their marriage vows and to the responsibilities that God gave them in this life.

“I don't think my parents ever felt that life was somehow about them or personal thoughts about what they deserved out of life,” he said. “They never lived selfishly but always worked for the welfare of each other. They did not always get along, but my mom had a meek and quiet spirit that was a nice complement to my dad’s energy and drive to get things done and make things happen.”

He said his father was the glue that held both the marriage and the family together.

“My dad was always a peacemaker. He had a great ability to see both sides and find a solution that brought people together rather than drove them apart,” he said. “He also was not a dictator. He never felt he needed to have all the answers or that he might be the smartest guy in the room. He genuinely wanted input from others to make decisions and was thankful to have people around him to help with decisions. This attitude was also useful in the family.”

A “Solid, Old-Fashioned” Couple

Family friends spoke highly of the Wernicks’ commitment to God and each other.

“They were always together, he providing a strong arm of support for her when she was unsteady on her feet,” said William A. Fagal, 68, associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate, where Francis Wernick serves as a life trustee. “She looked up to him with admiration and love. Their devotion to each other was palpable, as was their commitment to the Lord.”

In an example of their companionship, Francis and Mary Sue Wernick welcomed Fagal and his wife of 43 years, Sylvia, to the Washington area in September 2003 by showing up at their front door with a box of homegrown garden produce and an invitation to Sabbath lunch.

“When around the Wernicks, I would see her attentively watching him, listening to him as he talked, with an expression of interest, maybe a tiny touch of awe, certainly pride and total support,” said Sylvia Fagal, 71, whose own relationship with the Wernicks stretches back to when her father, Frank L. Marsh, taught biology to the young Francis Wernick at Union College.

“It's the solid, old-fashioned situation of the man being the head of the family and the wife in total support and very important in her role,” Sylvia Fagal said. “They were such a team that even years later she would speak of how lonely she had been without him when he was traveling and she was home with the children.”

Despite the heartbreak of watching her husband die, loneliness appears to be less of an issue these days for Mary Sue Wernick, who is in good heath. The couple are together all the time in the same room. They often hold hands. Because they are both hard of hearing, they communicate more through touch. When he speaks, he offers words of hope about the resurrection.

“My mom always wanted him to go first,” said their daughter Brenda Flemmer, administrative assistant at the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference. “She said she didn’t think that dad would survive without her."