There are couples in this world that inspire us to love and to become better individuals. Their love and devotion to each other is not just seen, it is felt. They seem to have sipped a certain potion that makes their heart beat and eyes light up for each other even though their faces may be wrinkled and their bodies may be aging. That type of love that makes tears well up in our own eyes and emotion sweep over our body because we know how special it is, that love that we all start out dreaming of when we are young.
In a world that bombards us with celebrity relationships that come and go with the seasons and perpetuates selfishness, it is easy to disconnect from that type of love and its strength. But that type love does exist and it isn’t a fairytale, it exists in real life in couples who have been together through the best of times and the worst of times. Love is a verb, not a noun, it is something we do and show to others, it is not an allusive thing or possession we search for. Long past the first date, long past the wedding, long past the babies, and long past middle age, these couples show us what it is to love and their stories melt our hearts and give us a deeper meaning of what love can truly become.
Cherry was 17 years old when Bart’s best friend walked up to her and asked if she would accept a date with Bart. She cleverly replied, “If Bart wants to have a date with me, he will have to ask me himself.” And so, Bart worked up the nerve and did just that. “Bart was so shy. He could not even look at me. He asked me for that date looking down at his shoes!”
She said yes and Bart took the most beautiful, sweetest girl at Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery, Alabama on a date. He came from a military family and did not have the means to compete with the other young men from more affluent homes who also wanted to take Cherry out. For their first date Bart took her to Krystal. She had one hamburger, he had two and they each had a Coca Cola. Afterwards, they went to a movie. That was over 60 years ago.
“I wonder sometimes how I got this lucky,” Cherry says as she sits on a sofa in their Hoover, Alabama home, a home she took great joy in decorating and is filled with artwork of her family and gifts of art Bart has given her over the years. Her husband, one of the best football quarterbacks in history, football icon Bart Starr, 81 years old now, is in his office re-learning some of the most basic life skills most take for granted. Last year Bart suffered two strokes, a heart attack and several seizures. Cherry was told shortly afterwards, if he suffered another seizure, he may not survive.
After several months of physical, occupational and speech therapies, he is standing on his own, walking some, and regaining the ability to communicate. Life has changed dramatically for The Starrs. Bart needs around the clock care as he has a long road to heal from such traumatic brain injuries. It is challenging and exhausting work for the caretaker.
The day before this interview was a difficult one for Bart. Though Cherry is still very put together with her makeup and hair fixed as if she had a full night’s rest. She says, “I will always be prepared to represent this family.” Her petite frame is a mere disguise to the huge heart and abounding strength that lies within her. At almost 81 herself, she giggles when she says she snagged an older man. Even in her 80s she still plays tennis regularly.
Cherry is full of wisdom that some might say is old fashioned, but nonetheless remains true. She has always found it important to wake up early enough to make sure her family had a good breakfast in their stomachs before they left the house. While Bart was playing football she would pack his lunch every day, and she always fixed what he wanted for dinner. She also always had her hair and makeup done to see Bart off in the morning and was put together when he came home at night.
She recalls a story of seeing a neighbor one day:
I was on the way to meet Bart when a neighbor saw me and waved. The neighbor asked, “Where are you going.” When I said that Bart and I were meeting for dinner, the neighbor replied, “Oh, I didn’t know it was dinner time.” I said, “Well if I can give you some advice, I would go in and get myself put together. Your husband has seen attractive women all day and you want to be the best looking thing he has seen.”
When asked what attracted her to Bart, “His manners and his smile. I love his smile. In fact when he was playing football I was afraid he was going to get those teeth knocked out.” Her eyes light up when she says, “We have always held hands, it still makes my heart throb.” Through her years as a football wife and beyond, Bart has written her hundreds of notes expressing his love. He still greets Cherry each morning by saying, “Good Morning Beautiful.” While she continues to make him laugh and continues to let Bart know how very much she adores him.
What would she tell young couples, “Take time to get to know each other. It is great to start out as friends because you want your life partner to be your best friend.” Cherry says unregretfully, “I never had much of a social life. When Bart was away we talked every day, and I would be home with the children. I never did girls’ nights out or anything like that, he was my best friend, so I would much rather be with him.”
To new parents Cherry says, “Try to be emotionally prepared and when your baby comes along you will discover a beautiful love, it is as if the world opens up and you find a kind of love you have never felt before.”
On marriage Cherry says, “What I see die in marriages so often is politeness. You have to be polite to each other and speak kindly to each other.” She states, “Some men aren’t the best husbands and some women aren’t the best wives. Sometimes I’ve been through tough times and Bart has had to be the strong one. Sometimes Bart has been through tough times and I’ve had to be the strong one. When you love them, you want to be there. Through it all be mindful of the good things.”
You name the heartache and most likely The Starrs have experienced it. The Starrs lost their son at 25 to drugs, which is the hardest thing they have ever been through. Bret Starr had been clean 18 months when he died. He would call his parents every morning and night and when those phone calls did not come, they knew something was wrong. Bart was the one who flew to Tampa and found Bret in his home. Cherry says, “I thought drugs were something that didn’t happen if you were a good parent. Bad things can happen even in the best of situations.”
Then 5 years ago Bart began showing signs of short term memory loss. Through it all Cherry has exhibited grace, patting her husband on his hand and saying “Honey you just shared that” when he repeats himself. “You have to find humor,” she says. She and Bart laugh, and they laugh a lot. When he would have to work late she would put on Groucho Marx glasses and cover her face with a book and greet him with a “Hello Honey” when he came home.
She recalls a cute story:
We were driving to the beach and Unchained Melody came on. Bart loves that song. He reached over and took my hand and squeezed it. He looked at me and thoughtfully said, “Honey, I want you to be sure to play this song at my wedding.” He obviously meant to say ‘at my funeral’, but I wasn’t going to let him get away with his blunder. I said, “Bart, I’m not even dead and you’re already planning your wedding?!” He asked me to promise to never tell anyone. Well, I did tell it at a benefit for the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation and the place came apart. He forgave me.
Cherry lights up when speaking about Bart and his philanthropic heart. “He has always enjoyed helping others.” The Starrs even co-founded the Rawhide Boys Ranch in New London, Wisconsin 50 years ago. Rawhide has helped thousands of troubled boys redirect their lives.
After almost 3 hours of talking to Cherry (and I could have talked longer), my soul was energized and my heart full. Her wisdom, her candor, her kindness are something we all could learn from. When asked about true love, she responded, “I’m not sure what that means, I do think Bart and I were meant to be together. I do believe that fate brought us together and I cannot imagine being married to anyone else. He is the best husband imaginable. I wonder sometimes how I got this lucky.”
There is a framed calligraphy work that hangs in their home. Cherry asked that I follow her and read it, along with letters and cards from Bart and her sons Bret and Bart Jr. that will melt your heart they are so filled with love, the framed calligraphy reads:
Look not for perfection in your mate, you will not find it and it’s just as well, living with a saint can be very tiresome.
Let your love be stronger than your hate or anger.
Learn the wisdom of compromise, for it is better to bend a little than to break.
Believe the best rather than the worst. People have a way of living up or down to your opinion of them.
Remember that true friendship is the basis for any lasting relationship.
This Valentine’s Day, Bart was able to sign a card to Cherry. He has not been able to write since his strokes. The card read, “From the day I first saw your smile, I knew I wanted to see it everyday for the rest of my life.”