It was November 1957 — a time long before the era of online dating and fast, efficient transportation made long distance relationships more commonplace.
Texas A&M student Jack Spinks, from the Houston area, and Mary Lee Gilstrap, of Claremore, met on a blind date set up by a mutual friend.
“He asked if any girls wanted to come down and he’d get us dates with Aggies. I didn’t know they didn’t have girls down there! Three of us went. (Jack) was picked for me; the other girls didn’t fare so well,” Mary Lee smiled. “I thought he must be a wealthy Texan because he sent me a plane ticket. I didn’t know he was really a poor struggling college student. He was very generous.”
Plans were to attend the A&M football game against Rice that Saturday. Although the Aggies — number one at the time — suffered a devastating loss, the rest of the weekend was successful and the seeds of a special romance were planted.
As the relationship progressed, Jack flew to Oklahoma to meet her family.
“(My parents) immediately thought he was wonderful. They didn’t have any qualms about it,” Mary Lee said. “It was very unusual. Girls just didn’t do things like that back then — and certainly didn’t fly to meet boys for weekends.”
During Jack’s visit, he struck up a conversation about squirrel hunting with Mary Lee’s grandmother.
“She said she really liked squirrel and hadn’t had any in a while,” Jack said.
Wanting to impress his potentially future in-law, Jack started to plan a surprise.
“I asked a friend who was a big squirrel hunter to kill six to eight squirrels for when I went back to Oklahoma,” he said. “I wanted a nice bunch of them.”
The friend cleaned and froze his catch for Jack to pick up the week before he was to fly to Tulsa. Everything was in order when Jack changed planes in Dallas, but when he went to check on his “gift” in the overhead bin after landing in Tulsa, he knew there was trouble.
“They were pretty well defrosted,” he said. “I got off the plane and there I was with all those squirrels dripping wet!”
To make matters worse, his luggage — including the tux he was to wear that weekend to a formal — was lost in transit. Luckily, the most important item of the trip — the ring he was going to propose with — had been tucked safely in his pocket.
Jack and Mary Lee were married on Aug. 23, 1958 at First Christian Church in Claremore. They had seen each other just seven times before their wedding day.
The Spinkses say the “secret” to their union of nearly 56 years is “working at it every day.”
“I don’t want it to seem like a fairytale, but we’ve never had any major problems,” said Mary Lee, “just the normal ups and downs.”
Even though they moved quite a bit throughout his career in the natural gas pipeline industry, Mary Lee said they were always sent to good cities and were able to make good friends.
Then in 1999, Jack had the opportunity to move to Oklahoma.
“It was just wonderful because my mother was still here,” Mary Lee said. “We’re really happy to be in Claremore. We came here by choice and it was Jack’s idea which made it more comfortable.”
The Spinks’ “retirement” years have kept them busy with real estate development and volunteering with the Rogers State University Foundation, RSU Innovation Center and Will Rogers Memorial.
They have two sons, David and wife Anne of Conroe, Texas, and Carlton and wife Shannon of Fairhope, Ala. Their grandchildren are Cody, Amanda and Skylar.
“We’ve been very fortunate with our family and with our work over the years. Everything just sort of worked out the way it was supposed to,” Mary Lee said. “There’s a God-plan in all this.”
Jack agreed: “When you look back, you wonder ‘did anything magic happen?’ Not that you know of — but maybe it was magic all along.”