In two weeks, on June 28, long-time St. James City residents Ray and Fran Lever will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary.
Ray Clarence Lever was born in Milwaukee. His family moved to Chicago when he was only 1 year old.
Francis Ella Newberg was born in Chicago and as luck would have it, the two were raised just two blocks apart.
After serving in the Air Force, Ray returned home to Chicago.
“My story was, I was never going to get married,” Ray said. But the two were married on June 28, 1947. “Fran was just 18 and I was 22 or 23.
“After coming back from the service, the GI Bill offered a wonderful opportunity to go to school,” Ray said. “So I went to school and became an engineer. In those days, General Electric was very aggressively recruiting college graduates. They would follow you through your college years and by the time you graduated, they knew who they were going to hire.”
Ray was hired right out of school and went through the General Electric one-year “trial period,” which included a series of problem solving challenges.
“They would throw a series of problems at you and if you were able to solve them you were hired permanently – I worked for GE 36 years,” Ray said.
“When I was about 50 years old we had this dream that we were going to travel so we built a 35-foot boat,” Ray said. “I was very fortunate to retire at 58 years old and when the boat was finished, we came all the way down the inter-coastal waterway from Connecticut. We traveled very slowly and talked to everybody all the way down. It took about a year.”
The Levers sailed the east coast of Florida, the Keys and the Gulf Coast before donating the boat to a charitable organization and engaging in their next adventure Airstream Trailers.
“We had read about this guy Wally Byram who started Airstream Trailers,” Ray said. “He built trailers out of aluminum and began organizing caravans where groups of Airstream owners would travel all around the world. We traveled to Alaska twice to Central America and to the southern tip of Mexico. We did this for quite a few years.”
Wanting to live in the South, the Levers purchased a home in New Bern, North Carolina, thinking it was far enough south to get away from the New England winters.
“We learned pretty quickly it gets cold there,” Ray said. “My brother and sister-in-law were living on Pine Island and my Uncle George owned a home in Bokeelia that’s how we found Pine Island.”
The Levers came for a visit.
“We were looking for 100 acres to build a marina but, of course, we couldn’t find 100 acres,” Ray said. “We returned home and a local Realtor called us with a house he thought we would love. We didn’t come back to buy it, instead my Uncle George looked at it and we bought this house over the phone. We have one of the nicest views on Pine Island and we’ve been looking at that view for 32 years.”
After living in the corporate world, the Levers appreciated the people and the culture of Pine Island.
“Everyone was so down to earth and friendly and we were ready to ‘drop out’ of that corporate world,” Ray said.
“At the end of the trailer experience we had been to Europe and didn’t want to do that again,” Fran said. “We decided we were going to either take a trip around the world on tramp steamers or get a dog and stay home. So we bought ourselves a Brittany spaniel and had him for 12 years.”
The only time the Levers left their island home in their 32 years was after Hurricane Charley. The rear of the house sustained substantial damage. The entire lanai was destroyed by wind and the interior of the house was soaked.
“All the walls and ceilings were destroyed so we just remodeled the whole house,” Fran said.
“The real problem people face is that all the contractors are so busy they can’t get to you for a long time,” Ray said. “It took at least a year to get a contractor to make the repairs.
“When we got here 32 years ago, there were mostly fishing families,” Ray said. “It was a wonderful experience because we would always get together for birthdays and anniversaries and everybody knew everybody else. We stayed here because we were very comfortable with the people here.”
The big changes the Levers observed over the years is the water has gotten dirtier, the fishing isn’t as good and the seabirds are far and few between.
“We used to have dozens of birds here and now they’re all gone,” Ray said.
The Levers have three children: Glenn (67) lives with his family in Rochester, New York. Peggy (65) and Carol (62) live with their families in Concord, New Hampshire.
In 1947, when the Levers were married, the average cost of a gallon of gas was 15 cents, a loaf of bread was 13 cents and you could buy a brand new Buick Road Master for about $1,800.
When asked about how they managed to stay married 70 years Ray said, “A hell of a lot of patience!”