An Air Force love story
In late December 1950, Dick Chappell drove his 1936 Plymouth nine miles down an unlit country road in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to ask a girl he liked on a date.
“Because at that time there were no telephone lines down that road, and she didn’t have a telephone,” he explained. “So, fortunately she was home, and I asked her for a date, and she said yes.”
They had met just a day or two before. “I was with a friend of mine, and we were on a double date,” he said. “When we took our girlfriends home, my friend said to me, ‘Dick, will you please run by a friend’s house in Old Salem?’” Dick agreed.
“We went to that house, and there Donna was visiting this friend of hers,” he said. “So, we met, and we talked for a very short time. And either she or her friend asked me, ‘Would you please take Donna home?’” While driving her down that long back road to her house, Dick decided he wanted to see her again.
He was a senior and Donna was a sophomore in high school, and the two began dating for the next four years. By October 1953, Dick said, he was tired of working his way through college, so he joined the Air Force’s Aviation Cadet Program, which only required two years of a college education.
Christmas 1953 came and Dick asked Donna to marry him. Both said they have a hard time remembering the details of the proposal because marriage “just made sense” to them.
“Looking back on our history together, it just always seemed to fit,” Dick said. “As though we were just made for each other. There were no explosions and bells and whistles going off, but it was just kinda like we had moved into an assumption that … we were [meant] to be.”
“Our life has fit,” Donna said. “We’ve always agreed on things, like buying a house, buying a car, you know, the big things in life. It’s always been interesting that we’ve always thought the same way.”
As soon as Dick was commissioned at James Connally Air Force Base in Waco, Texas, in 1955, he called Donna in North Carolina. “Honey, I want you to come ASAP,” he recalled saying.
Donna set out to find a way to Texas. “I went to my dad and I said, ‘Dad, Dick wants me to be there in two weeks. Are you going to fly me, daddy? Or, are you going to take me?’” Her dad decided to take the two-day trip by car. “So, he drove me with my brother,” she said. “It amazes me, how we got the luggage for three people and everything I had in my hope chest.”
Like many young women at the time, Donna had collected a hope chest full of clothing, china and other things to bring into her marriage.
Shortly after arriving in Texas, Donna and Dick had a military wedding in a small chapel on base. The groomsmen were all friends of Dick’s, and he asked his friend’s wife to be Donna’s matron of honor. “I had never seen those people before,” Donna said.
Still, she said she was grateful that her father could give her away. Both Donna and Dick came from families with divorced parents, all living in the Winston-Salem area. Donna said their two mothers gave them “a wonderful surprise” by flying in for the wedding.
During the rehearsal, Donna turned to her mother. “I said, mom, something’s wrong, I can’t eat, I can’t swallow.” She was starting to feel sick.
After the ceremony Feb. 5, the newlyweds drove to Dallas for their honeymoon, and Dick ordered a nice dinner to their room. “It was filet mignon,” Donna said. “Filet mignon was like the king’s food. I had never had anything so wonderful, but I couldn’t eat it, I was so sick.”
They drove back to Waco on Sunday, and the next day Dick left for a 5:30 a.m. flight and Donna went to the doctor.
That’s when she found out she had mononucleosis, or mono. Dick now jokes about it, saying, “I’ve always said, you’ve been in North Carolina, and you bring the kissing disease with you.”
“That was the beginning,” Donna said laughing at the memory. “But, we are having a better ending as you have noticed.”
As Donna remembered their first home in Texas, describing it as a small garage apartment, a smile spread across her face.
“I was so poor. I came from a very poor family,” she said. “When I walked into that little tiny apartment, it looked like...oh my goodness, it was so luxurious. It had pictures on the wall, and everything was so nice.” She said Dick had put a lot of work into preparing it.
After some training in Georgia, Dick was assigned to Dover Air Force Base, but the base only had housing for single men and the highest ranking officers at the time. “I was told, ‘Don’t bring your family because there’s no housing,'” he said. Eventually, he found an apartment in the top half of a home at 38 South New Street and sent for Donna, who was now pregnant with their first child.
“It’s dangerous now, but then it was an older area, an older neighborhood even then, and most of the homes were owned by widows,” he said.
After a few years in Dover, Dick continued to travel with the Air Force and his job as a pilot often kept him away from home. “He was gone almost half of every month,” Donna said. “It was a lonely time for me.”
While he was stationed in Thailand, in 1974-75, she would mail him cassettes with recordings from her and their kids. He came back to Dover after that, where he would stay until retiring in February 1983. The couple has stayed in the area since.
“We created a lot of friends, our doctors were here, our church was here, so we didn’t move away,” Dick said.
65 years later
Despite spending many years of their marriage writing letters, Donna said the key to their lasting relationship has been their commitment to each other.
“We never ever thought about getting a divorce because we had gone through it with our parents,” she said. “Heavens to Betsy, we certainly don’t want to have to go through anything like that again.”
Dick agreed. “The thought never came to my mind to sever this relationship. It just wasn’t in my DNA,” he said.
They credited their shared faith as a central part of their relationship and encouraged young people to find a partner that has the same deep-set values.
“We’ve always stayed in prayer and continue to be so appreciative to the Lord for all the blessings we’ve been given and been allowed. I think to be thankful is a big thing in a Christian life,” Dick said.
Donna and Dick have three children, four grandchildren, one great grandchild and another on the way. They celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary Feb. 5. In a way, their relationship has been similar to Donna’s description of their first home: “Everything was just right.”