Bob and Kathleen Slater couldn’t believe anyone would want to hear their story. “We’re just two old people trying to take care of each other,” Bob said.
That’s part of it, but dig deeper and you’ll find theirs is a story of two people who found love in their late 80s, who make each other laugh and who are an inspiration that life can be full and happy at any age.
Their stories started separately many years before. Bob had a career in the Navy, retiring to Charleston in the late 1970s for a warmer climate and a familiar community since he had been stationed here in 1948. Bob and his wife at the time, Claire, bought a house in West Ashley where they lived for 17 years. Then the couple moved just down the street to a one-story house as Claire’s health began to decline.
A few doors down lived Charleston native Kathleen McCauley. She knew Bob simply as a neighbor, offering a friendly wave now and then.
In February 2011, Bob’s wife passed away after a lengthy illness. As Bob adjusted to life as a widower, he kept up his daily 2-mile morning walk, which has been his exercise routine since he was 62 years old. As Bob walked the neighborhood, he got into the habit of picking up newspapers for a few older neighbors and leaving the papers on their porches.
One September morning last year, Bob put Kathleen’s paper on the porch and discovered the previous day’s paper was still there. He knocked on the door but Kathleen didn’t answer. Worried, he called Kathleen when he returned home, leaving a message that he was going to call EMS. “I thought she might be lying on the floor,” he said.
Kathleen, who’d been a widow for more than a decade, called back to let Bob know she was fine and simply didn’t hear his knock on the door. Kathleen was touched by Bob’s concern. “I didn’t really know if my neighbors cared.”
Bob found out Kathleen enjoyed watching reruns of the “Lawrence Welk Show” on Saturday evenings so he invited her over for dinner. “The next thing I knew, she was coming every night,” Bob joked. And Kathleen laughs about how she was won over by a man who cooks, plus the great marsh views from his large picture windows.
Those evening dinners were much more than a meal and an old TV show rerun. “We enjoyed talking to each other,” Kathleen said. “I was filling a need he had as well as a need I had.”
More than friends
As the weeks went on, Bob and Kathleen’s friendship deepened. And then Kathleen had a stroke while at Bob’s house. Because Bob’s late wife also had suffered a stroke, he recognized the signs and acted fast. Kathleen was hospitalized for three days and then returned to Bob’s house where she intended to spend a few days so he could watch after her.
When she came in the house, Bob was sitting at the kitchen table, Kathleen recalled. “He said, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about my priorities, and I don’t think I have them straight. Will you marry me?’
“It was the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard,” Kathleen said. “I said, ‘I would love to marry you.’ ”
Bob’s youngest daughter living in Georgia planned the wedding and the two married in a small ceremony on May 10 in Norman Park, Ga.
Bob, 87, said they have 110 years of marriage between the two of them but they’re still newlyweds who are getting to know each other and sharing their own interests and hobbies.
Music and needlepoint
Kathleen, 88, has been playing the piano since she was 8 years old. She studied music at Coker College and played the organ for years at Grace Episcopal Church and later at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Kathleen also gave piano lessons and taught music at Ashley Hall.
A Baldwin upright piano sits in the living room, lined with sheet music, hymnals and well-used music books of Broadway tunes and “Schirmer’s All-Time Favorites.” The Slater’s marriage certificate sits atop the piano, visibly displaying their love, just like newlyweds do.
Bob has rekindled a needlepoint hobby he picked up many years ago. From 1960-1963, Bob was the chief engineer on a Navy carrier so was almost always at sea. When he returned, his wife said he needed a hobby and bought him a hook rug kit.
It was too easy for Bob so he found something more challenging in creating a needlepoint tapestry. His first effort hangs in his kitchen today, a streetscape most likely based on National Geographic photo of Italy, he said.
In 1964, he began work on a 30-by-30 tapestry of a ship, another National Geographic photo inspiration. He chipped away at the needlepoint project for years, taking it on military assignments to Japan and the Philippines. Not quite complete, Bob finally gave the tapestry to his daughter hoping she might finish the last stitches. Instead, she framed it and gave it to Bob as a Christmas gift two years ago.
Bob uses magazine or calendar photos for inspiration, griding the photo into 1-inch squares and doing a half cross-stitch to complete the needlepoint tapestry.
He’s working on his most ambitious project yet: a gift for Kathleen’s 90th birthday. He has 14 months to complete the 146,000 stitches that make up the tree-filled photo of Botany Bay Plantation he found in Charleston magazine.
But Bob isn’t deterred. He approaches his needlepoint with the same engineering mindset of his Navy career. “I was a ship builder in the Navy, and I do these like I built a ship,” Bob said. “It doesn’t take any talent at all. It takes a steadfast determination that you’re going to finish it.”
Kathleen just smiles and shakes her head at Bob’s modesty.
A life of laughter
While Bob and Kathleen have lived full lives independent of each other, their newfound romance has filled an empty space in their hearts. “I didn’t realize how quiet the house was,” Bob said.
Like newlyweds, they hold hands and Bob is quick to assist Kathleen down the porch steps. And yet like a couple married for decades, they finish each other’s stories and have an unspoken connection.
“Tell the story,” Kathleen urged Bob. He knew just what story she meant. Before they were married, the two were shopping in Kmart. They approached the checkout and the teenage employee asked how long they’d been married. Bob knew the young woman “saw two ancient people approaching and she expected us to say 72 years.”
But Bob, ever the quick wit, replied, “I picked her up on aisle four just five minutes ago.”
Kathleen bursts into laughter once again. “I didn’t know he was such a cut up.”
Kathleen and Bob were both widowed and lived in the same neighborhood before marrying×
The marriage license for Bob and Kathleen is displayed atop the piano.×
Kathleen and Bob Slater, who were married in May, laugh a lot together.×
Bob Slater shows an example of his needlepoint artwork, a hobby he began in the 1960s.×
Provided Bob is working on a Lowcountry canopy of trees needlepoint for Kathleen's 90th birthday in 2015.×
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