Long-awaited love story: Couple reconnects, weds 72 years after first proposal

At age 5, Doug Dillard had a crush on the girl who lived around the corner on Avenue J in Temple. The year was 1935. In a voice loud enough for a neighbor to hear, he asked JoAn Pirtle to marry him. JoAn turned him down. We were too young, she said.

At age 78, Doug Dillard still had a crush on the girl who grew up just around corner. The year was 2007. And Doug was ready to take another crack at winning JoAn’s hand. So Dillard drove JoAn over to her girlhood home on Avenue J.

“I said I want to take your picture on that corner where we used to talk. I took that picture, dropped down on one knee and asked her again, ‘Will you marry me?’ And this time she said yes, 72 years after that rejection.”

On Sept. 15, 2007, Doug and JoAn Dillard traded wedding vows at a brief ceremony with close friends and family. Andy Davis, pastor at First Baptist Belton, said it was one of the most extraordinary weddings he’s presided over in the 27 years he’s been in Belton

“Given the background, I think it was just wonderful. They were like 18-year-olds. They were just having lots of fun,” Davis said. “One of the things I take away from it is God intends the very best for us and he had a plan for Doug and JoAn in their golden years; that they could find someone that they could share the rest of their lives with and enjoy each other’s presence and be a blessing to each other.”

Throughout high school, Doug and JoAn remained friends, but nothing romantic sprouted from their early years playing hopscotch and jacks. Doug said he held her up on a pedestal and JoAn remembers his ability to mimic Donald Duck and for drawing cartoons, a skill that would serve him well later in life.

After high school, JoAn and Doug earned degrees at different universities, married and moved on. JoAn lived in Houston and worked as a teacher and administrator at the public school district. Upon retirement, she and her first husband, Dee Musick, moved to Belton. She served four terms on the Belton City Council and was president of the Bell County Museum. She is highly regarded for her philanthropy at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, First Baptist Belton and other civic organizations. After JoAn’s husband died, she kept busy serving on various boards and committees. The thought of marrying again did not cross her mind.

“I’d been a widow for 12 years and I was very happy with my life. I didn’t sit home. You might go by yourself but you’re never by yourself when you get there,” JoAn said. “So I never let that handicap me.”

But after Doug lost his wife of 53 years, he struggled with depression. His life and career in religious public relations had been fulfilling. Drawing on that talent for sketching cartoons, he created a character, Brother Blotz, that graced the editorial pages of the Baptist Standard for three decades. His humor and public speaking skills kept him busy, traveling across Texas as an after-dinner speaker. Yet he was grappling with his new role in life, one without a partner.

“I went into a blue funk for over a year. A morbid kind of grief,” Dillard said. “I had an invitation to go speak at the 100th anniversary of a church in San Antonio. I decided it was time for me to come out of that deep cavern of grief and live. So I was going to devote that trip to nostalgia. I’m going to call every classmate on my way down (from Garland to San Antonio). Take my time going and coming and begin to circulate again. As I drove through Troy, I called JoAn”

But she wasn’t home. So Dillard left a message and decided to hang out at the Bell County Museum. Their paths had crossed several times through the years, so his call shouldn’t be a surprise. Fifteen minutes later, JoAn returned the call. She was on her way to a meeting with the board of directors at The Bell County Museum where Dillard sat waiting. After a short visit at the museum, Dillard hit the road for San Antonio. But on the return trip, he called and asked her out for dinner.

“I looked at her and realized that for the first time we had gotten together, crossed paths, that we were both single,” Dillard said. “Maybe this girl that I was still holding up on a pedestal way beyond my reach might have an interest.”

After that first date, things happened fast. The next weekend, Dillard returned to Belton to spend more time with JoAn.

“From there, we started scheming,” Dillard said. “When are we going to get married? June wedding became a spring wedding. Became a New Year’s wedding. Became why not marry before Thanksgiving so we could spend Thanksgiving with our families and get them to know each other?”

But an upcoming trip to New Mexico with members of the Golden Age Club at First Baptist Belton pushed Dillard to propose marriage sooner than even he expected. JoAn’s friend who would be sharing a room with her at the lodge where the group was staying cancelled her plans. Finding a roommate at this late date was a problem.

Enter Larry Putman, leader of the Golden Age Club and music minister at First Baptist for 30 years. Putman heard that JoAn needed a roommate for the upcoming trip so he gave Dillard a friendly shove. “You just go ahead and get married,” he told Dillard. “And you can go, too, as a couple.” Shortly afterward, Dillard drove JoAn to that house on Avenue J under pretense of taking her picture. On the same corner where they played hopscotch 72 years ago, he again asked JoAn’s hand in marriage.

Putman said the former childhood friends have been good for each other. “If ever there was an ideal marriage, that was one. They have so much in common. It was truly a good match.”

The Dillards celebrated their 99th wedding anniversary in December. “When you get married at age 78, you have to make up for lost time,” Doug Dillard said with a mischievous grin. “So we decided to celebrate monthly, which makes people drop their teeth. That gives me an opportunity to tell our story.”

Eight years after the Dillards traded wedding vows, Pastor Davis said the couple still exudes warmth and dedication toward each other. “You see them walking in the church or out in public somewhere, they’re holding hands. And that’s just a beautiful picture of what a marriage should be. They are just a beautiful picture.”