The Cleveland couple pleasantly remind that marriage can be full of wonderful surprises when a couple works together and share life’s journey with each other. Offering a refreshing candor about their life in college and how they met, Jim and Ve had fun reminiscing about what led up to their dating and eventual marriage that affected so many lives in Cleveland. The year was 1954.
“I was a recently returned veteran from the Korean War,” said Jim, who was 27 at the time. Ve was 20. Both were attending Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.
“My roommate told me about her. So I went over to her dormitory and we hit it off. I thought she was a beauty!” Jim said.
“We met on the campus,” Ve added. “He was dating my friend. My friend introduced us. He went out with her and dated her for that summer. He even borrowed money from me to go to see her.”
I didn’t have enough money to pay for my laundry bill to get my clothes out of the laundry to wear to school,” he said. “Ve had typed for some of the professors and made money. She said, ‘I’ll give you the money so you can get your clothes out.’”
Laughing, Ve said, “He didn’t want his girlfriend to know he didn’t have enough money to go see her and I was good-hearted.”
Both had feelings for each other, but the friendly dating atmosphere at college allowed those feelings to lie dormant, until something unexpected happened when Jim went to visit his steady girlfriend in her hometown.
“I was going to see her,” he recalled. “It had been raining. I saw a billboard that said Byrdstown in five minutes. I was topping a hill and didn’t know the road was turning. My car landed in a ditch against a power pole! I was stuck and had to get a wrecker to pull me out. That made me late getting to my date. I had never been to her house before. When I got there she said, ‘You’re late!’ I said, ‘Yes. I had an accident.’ She acted like she didn’t believe me. I said, ‘You see that mud on the fender and that dent that the power pole made?’”
Her cold, dry response was nothing like the warm reception Jim had hoped for coming out of a wreck in the rain.
“That’s the last time I went to see her,” he said. “When I came back from my date, my roommate was coming back from the student center with Ve. I said, ‘Wait a minute! That’s my girlfriend!’ He said, ‘No. You just went to see your girlfriend!’ So I was in a bind.”
Ve explained Jim’s dilemma, saying, “He was still dating the other girl, but he asked me out so we started dating too! Actually, we were dating when he borrowed the money from me to go see her. He came to my house in Byrdstown to pay me back. It didn’t bother me because they had been dating before I met Jim.”
Since Jim was seeing someone else, Ve said she felt free to accept an invitation to see a movie with a college friend. Jim was so upset he would not speak with her the next day. But like Jim, Ve experienced an auto accident that impacted the trajectory of their relationship.
“I was dating different boys. I wasn’t engaged,” Ve said. “I was dating a boy who was in (military) service. He came to Cookeville on furlough to see me one evening. We were driving around, going toward Nashville, when a big freight truck came over a knoll with its lights off.”
As her date was turning left, the unseen truck smashed into the car and rolled on top of it. Ve was thrown from the front seat to the back as the car caught fire. Her date was badly burned, but survived with a few broken bones. Ve suffered only minor scratches.
“I went with him to the hospital and one of the nurses took me to the college infirmary,” Ve said. “I stayed there for several days, shaken up.”
Jim added, “At that point, a friend of mine told me about the accident. I got angry with her again and wouldn’t speak with her for several days.”
Once Jim re-evaluated his feelings and realized how much she meant to him, the two soon started dating exclusively. He came to her home and met her parents. She came to his home in Cleveland and met his family — an aunt and uncle who cared for him after his father died of tuberculosis and his mother had to be hospitalized after contracting the disease from her husband.
Exactly when and where Jim proposed has two versions, depending on who tells it. But both had fun telling it.
“It was over apple pie that her mother had baked one night,” Jim said.
“He says he was eating apple pie,” Ve interjects with a laugh.
“Yeah. That’s what I was doing,” Jim replied. “While I was eating it I said, ‘Would you like to be my wife?’ and she said (imitating her voice), ‘Oh, I hoped that you would say that!”
The both started laughing.
“There’s a truth about it and then there’s what he says,” Ve added. “We were actually in a drive-in movie when he asked me.”
“Is that right?” Jim asked. “First time I remembered that.”
Both start laughing again.
“You tell this story over and over and over, and I correct you every time,” Ve said.
When asked what was playing at the drive-in movie, Ve quickly said, “I don’t remember.”
“We probably weren’t even watching that!” Jim answered.
Both burst into laughter.
“I said yes and hugged him,” Ve continued. “Later on he said, ‘I thought you’d squeeze me to death!”
On June 6, 1954, two years after they first met, Jim Finley and Veola Fae Neal were married in Byrdstown. The total amount for the entire wedding, including the rings ($117.50), material for making her gown ($35.88) and all the flowers ($27.24) came to a grand total of $180.62. The thrifty couple went on to build their own house in Cleveland, where they worked in the education system for many years.
Ve said in 1955, she was the youngest teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Bradley County, adding, “I went straight through college. I went three years and three summers, which made up the four years. Jim wanted me to do that so I could teach with him in elementary school. The very summer I graduated, I started teaching at Wooten School. The next year I was moved to the school where Jim had become principal at Oak Grove. I taught there for two years. Then I got pregnant and felt my place was in the home. So I didn’t teach in public schools any more. But I started teaching preschool children in church as a volunteer. I started as a director of a department, then a director of a whole division at First Baptist.
Jim, who taught school for 35 years in Bradley County, served as principal in several county schools, then moved to the city school system and taught in Allen School. He also attended Bob Jones College, where Lee University stands today.
“I graduated from Bob Jones Academy in 1945, then went to Bob Jones College for two years,” Jim said. “After that I went to Greenville, S.C. and worked. Then my friend, who was principal of Black Fox school said, ‘Let’s go to Tennessee Tech. So I went with him and we became roommates. That’s where I met Ve.”
After Jim retired from working in the education system in 1984 he started working for Walmart and has been working at the same store in the hardware department for the past 29 years.
“On Feb. 28, (2015) it will be 30 years,” he said.
Ve was asked to be a preschool leader in Sunday school for the Bradley County Baptist Association. She accepted the assignment and served more than 40 years, being trained by many top Southern Baptist convention leaders.
“I worked with every age group in church,” she said. “I was later asked to start leading conferences for preschool. That means teaching teachers how to teach preschool children. I was the preschool director for many years, teaching teachers all over the Southern Baptist convention in the state. In our church I became the weeknight director. I did that for 41 years.”
Jim has been a member of First Baptist Church in Cleveland for 84 years. Not only did he and his wife work together, learn together and teach together, but the Finleys made an adventure out of traveling together when Ve decided years ago that she wanted to visit every county in Tennessee. In time the couple visited all 95 counties. Then they decided to visit all 50 states and together they accomplished this feat. That left the world.
“Since I retired, we have traveled all over the world,” Jim said. “We’ve been to 79 countries together. We’ve been blessed!”
From Argentina, Eastern Europe, Antarctica, Egypt and Jordan to Russia, Thailand, Vietnam, Scotland, Cuba, Spain and many other places, Jim and Ve have taken their relationship of six decades to countries who had the privilege of seeing a couple who could laugh, joke, get along and find romance in a world that’s seeing fewer marriages last so long. The close-knit couple has one son and one daughter with five grandchildren.
When asked about the key to a happy marriage and why their marriage has lasted so long, Jim, who turns 88 this month, smiled and said, “I think it was agreeing with her and saying, ‘Yes, OK.’” He starts laughing.
Ve, 80, smiled back and said, “You have to work things out. There’s no couple anywhere that does not argue or have disagreements. We go through hard times, but you have to work it out. Keep God the center of your home. That’s the best thing to do for any marriage. Pray a lot. With children, you have to pray or it’s a disaster — I think.”
Both said when it comes to leaving any kind of legacy, they want people to be able to see God in them.
“That’s what really matters,” Ve said.
The couple will be celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary with friends from 2 to 4 p.m. on June 29 at First Baptist church in Cleveland.