Our first Love Notes Feature is the love story of Cletus and Shirley Gilbert. I was fortunate enough to speak with Dr. Cletus Gilbert about his early relationship and marriage to his late wife, Shirley. The love that he still so obviously feels for her is palpable in how he speaks of her and their journey through life.
Cletus, an Air Force veteran, spent 37 months in Germany where he helped to guard the West German border. While in Germany he received a ‘Dear John’ letter from his girlfriend stating that she was engaged to someone else. Knowing that that relationship was over, Cletus took the photos of her off his desk and mailed them to her younger sister, Shirley. After receiving the photos, Shirley began writing letters to Cletus, mentioning that her boyfriend was in his last year at North Carolina State University studying Electrical Engineering. Although this correspondence had started because of an unfortunate ‘Dear John’ letter, a friendship formed between Cletus and Shirley as they continued to send letters back and forth, and eventually Cletus knew that he would have to work fast if he wanted to win Shirley’s love.
Love at First Sight
When Cletus returned to the United States his step-father went with him to purchase a ‘55 Ford, which Cletus immediately drove to Shirley’s house. Of course he was greeted by her older sister – you know, the one that wrote him the ‘Dear John’ letter. He stuttered around a bit before he could ask for Shirley, who her sister said was at their Aunt’s house. While driving to the Aunt’s house Cletus came across Shirley and her younger sister walking home and was stopped in his tracks.
According to Cletus, Shirley was almost 16 when he left but was now a beautiful young lady. He even remembers exactly what she was wearing – a red blouse and white shorts. He fell in love with her instantly.
Shirley opened the car door and slid into the middle seat next to Cletus. When Cletus asked her “Why didn’t you let your sister get in first?” she said, “My sister wasn’t the one writing all those letters to you”. From then on Cletus was determined to win Shirley’s heart.
Their first date was that Saturday night, and although Cletus took Shirley to a drive-in movie and brought her home by 10 o’clock Shirley told her mom that she probably wouldn’t date him anymore. But, despite Shirley’s statement to her mother, the next morning Cletus picked up Shirley for Sunday School, stayed with her that afternoon, and brought her back to church that evening. They dated morning, afternoon, and evening for two full weeks.
On the third Friday night they were at Cletus’ mother’s house. Cletus was laying on a big metal swing with his head in Shirley’s lap. He looked up and could see in her eyes that she loved him so he proposed right then and there. “Shirley Wilkerson, will you marry me?” Cletus asked. Of course Shirley said “yes!” and they had one more week together before Cletus had to report to Eglin Air Force Base on Florida’s Emerald Coast. Shirley promised that she would wait for Cletus to return from his four months of training but after just one month Cletus was able to return home. He drove from Florida to Greenville, South Carolina through the night, finally reaching Shirley’s parent’s house at 6am. Cletus remembers her mom answering the door and then Shirley coming to the door still with her curlers in her hair. He kissed her cheek and asked for her left hand before placing an engagement ring on her ring finger.
Cletus and Shirley were married on November 30th, 1957. As newlyweds Cletus and Shirley lived with her parents for a short time so Cletus could save up enough money to purchase furniture for their new home. Cletus recalls that Shirley’s father gifted them a bedroom set – an iron bed with a mattress and cover.
Shirley’s old boyfriend returned to her parent’s house shortly after their wedding day, Cletus still remembers his name – Hubert Jenkins, and her father told him that he was too late because Shirley had gotten married on November 30th and had already moved out.
After they got married Cletus asked Shirley why she didn’t accept any of the marriage proposals that she received before he returned to the states and before he returned from training at Eglin Air Force Base, to which she said “I was waiting for you”.
Life After the Military
After 4 years serving active duty in the Air Force Cletus served 6 years in the Army Reserves and became a preacher. He preached for 20 years in the United States and spent 20 summers preaching the gospel and teaching at seminaries in Brazil where he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Divinity and an Honorary Doctor of Humanity.
Cletus and Shirley preached and taught Sunday School together, always keeping their faith at the center of their marriage. In all their years of marriage, aside from the trips to the seminaries in Brazil, Cletus and Shirley only spent 1 hour apart. He remembers that he got angry ‘over a little something’ and drove off to a service station where he used to work on the weekends. His brother in law, the gentlemen who married Shirley’s older sister, came out and they talked for a bit before Cletus said “You know what, I’ve got too good a thing going and I’ve got to get home”. Cletus drove home and him and Shirley were never separated again.
Cletus and Shirley had 63 years, 3 months, and 12 days of a very happy, loving marriage. Shirley passed away on March 12, 2021 after losing her battle with cancer, and although Cletus misses her very much he would not have her back if it meant she would continue to suffer. Cletus was blessed with a message from Shirley after she passed where she said ‘You haven’t lost someone when you know where they’re at’ and this has reassured Cletus that Shirley is in Heaven, cancer free, without pain and suffering.
Cletus and Shirley had a wonderful, fulfilling life together. They have three children: Michael, Anita, and Rhonda; 11 grandchildren; 20 great grandchildren; and 3 great-great grandchildren. Shirley was predeceased by their youngest daughter Rhonda and one granddaughter.
While speaking with Cletus I could feel the love that he has for Shirley. He spoke of her with such admiration, grace, and respect that their connection is undeniable. They were blessed with a true love for each other that originated in the letters they wrote while Cletus was in Germany. Although nowadays we often wonder how we would survive without the ability to call or email our spouses while they are deployed or traveling, perhaps if all we had were letters we would be able to focus more on what makes love, love.
Military Marriage Day
This blog is part of a feature to that presents the Love Notes Contest, which showcases the love stories of veterans and active duty service members in honor of Military Marriage Day (August 14th). The Love Notes Contest is hosted by Military Marriage Day in partnership with IML’s Veteran Pen Pal Project, which asks both prior and current military service members to share their military love story for a chance to be featured during the Military Marriage Day celebration on August 14th.
Do you have a military love story that you would like to share?
Enter the Military Marriage Day Love Notes Contest by clicking the button below!
Your story could be featured during the Military Marriage Day virtual celebration and here on the It’s a Military Life blog!
A very special thank you to Mr. Claude Schmid, founder of Veteran’s Last Patrol (VLP) for allowing me the opportunity to speak with Cletus, who is a veteran that VLP graciously supports in numerous ways.