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Couple shares love of music for 72+ years

Johnnie and Ruth Sturgeon, of Clarkfield, fell in love with each other and music during their high school years when they both participated in the school band. Johnnie played the trombone, and Ruth played the French horn.

Ruth and Johnnie Sturgeon, of Clarkfield, have spread the joy of music throughout their 72-year marriage. The two will celebrate their next anniversary on Oct. 24.   Photo by Ida Kesteloot

Ruth and Johnnie Sturgeon, of Clarkfield, have spread the joy of music throughout their 72-year marriage. The two will celebrate their next anniversary on Oct. 24. Photo by Ida Kesteloot

After graduation, Johnnie served his country during WWII, but even the hardship of being away from his loved ones and at war could not keep his musical spirit from springing forth, and he joined the military band and enjoyed playing music with other servicemen whenever the opportunity happened.

Upon his return, the high school sweethearts married, 72 years ago. Johnnie and Ruth settled into their happy ever after life in Clarkfield and raised five children, Marlene, of Clarkfield; Nancy, of Minnesota and Myrtle Beach; John, of Marshall; Jennifer, of Wyoming and Minnesota; and Donavon, of Redwood Falls.

“We have five of the most wonderful children; we are so proud of them. We thank God for all these wonderful years we have shared and all the blessings He has given to us,” said Ruth.

“Our mom and dad are the greatest pair. We were so lucky to have a mom that was always there for us, waiting for us to get home from school every day. She would be there, and the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies would be coming from the kitchen. We all just had the best childhood,” said daughter Marlene. The couple has seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

“I have always loved music and so has Ruth. She has a beautiful singing voice and used to love to sing. We both did a lot of singing but her loss of hearing has taken some of that away from her and that makes me kind of sad.

“I played with two great guys, and they are coming here today to the Clarkfield Care Center, and we are planning on a musical reunion. The guys, Merlin Cadwell and Wayne Kessler and I played together for 35 years. We called ourselves the Moonlighters. We played in all the old dance halls and clubs in the area for wedding dances, anniversaries, birthdays and all sorts of occasions. I played instruments and did the singing; Merlin played the guitar and Wayne the accordion, and we had a ball.

I played the trombone and then went to guitar and the harmonica; it is easier to carry, better than a bass. My voice isn’t as smooth as it used to be, but I still love to sing. Before Merlin joined us I played with Wayne and my son Donavan. He played drums and sang. He started when he was in the sixth-grade, but when he went away to college, Merlin joined in,” said Johnnie.

“We have had a lot of fun over the years and played a lot of music. In the early years we would play three times a week and then we backed down to twice a week. We had a lot of long, late night trips home and sometimes in some awful weather, but it has been great,” said Merlin, who played every song without any sheet music.

As the audience at the Care Center waited, Johnnie watched the clock and began to worry about his longtime friend, Wayne. When it was time for their performance to begin, and Wayne hadn’t appeared yet, in true musicians’ showmanship, they decided the show must go on, and Johnnie’s son-in-law, Bill Huston, strapped on his accordion and filled in until Wayne arrived. Though Bill did an admirable job of standing in, it was impossible to not see the ease which the three comrades played once Wayne was set up. Song after song flowed easily, and once more, Johnnie pulled from memory all those songs that he shared for so many years.

“I think my dad has been singing his whole life; I could listen to him for hours. When he was younger he had a voice as soft as velvet, so smooth. It has changed somewhat, but I still love to hear him singing. Both my mom and dad have always loved music and shared that love for so long. They will both turn 90 in January. They are very special people,” said daughter Nancy. As Johnnie sang, Have I Told You Lately that I love You? a sparkle came to Ruth’s eyes, and one could almost see the years of devotion flowing between them as if they were the only people in the room.

As the toe tapping and clapping in time continued Merlin jokingly said. “We have always gotten a lot of requests, but we just kept playing.” It was easy to see how the love of music and laughter flowed so readily between the old friends.

“We all enjoy music so much, and it has been so much fun to play together, just look at how everyone is smiling and having a good time that is what it has always been about for us. Music lifts everyone’s spirits and makes you forget about any problems or cares and just moves you along and gives you a happy feeling,” said Wayne.

The couple calls Clarkfield home. It is where Johnnie farmed and worked for Cenex. In 1977 they moved to Willmar and also lived at Eagle Lake for 20 years but are back to where their roots run deep and the music brought them together.

“Music has been so important in both our lives. If I had known how much fun we would have and what a great life we would share, I would have taken better care of myself,” said Johnnie as her put his arm around his high school sweetheart and wife of 72 years.

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