For some, 70 years can be an entire lifetime, but for lovebirds Bonnie and Casey McDanel, of Tyler, it’s been a marriage filled with faith and a growing family.
Over those years, the McDanel family has grown to include eight children and eight spouses, 27 grandchildren and 18 spouses, 59 great-grandchildren and two spouses and one great-great grandchild.
Bonnie recalled meeting her future husband at a ladies’ choice dance in her small town.
“And I saw this stranger and I asked him to dance, and we’ve been together ever since,” she said. “Like I say, he’s a keeper.”
Bonnie, 88, and Casey, 93, are both proud of the longevity of their marriage that reached 70 years on Nov. 18.
“We got married, we knew it was for life, but what we brag about of our eight children is they’re all married and four of them have been married over 40 years,” she said.
The couple has lived in Tyler for over nine years, enjoying their retirement.
Casey is a retired Air Force veteran who served during the Vietnam War and he was also sent on numerous deployments across the country and internationally.
During his time in the service, the family traveled to places like Texas, Washington D.C., Germany, Alaska and South Dakota. Despite the travel, Casey and Bonnie focused on staying together as much as possible.
“I got in the service right after we got married, and since I’ve been in the service we’ve been together practically all the time,” he said. “That’s the only time we’ve been apart when I went to ‘Nam and that was only for a year.”
Bonnie took care of the home, and she also worked for a realtor, with a plumbing and AC company and as a bookkeeper for a women’s clothing store.
Casey and Bonnie both received a retirement certificate from the military in 1971.
Bonnie spoke highly of the military and its kindness to their family, including Casey’s commanding officer checking in on her and the kids.
“The service was very good to our family,” she said. “Can’t say enough for the military. No one ever say anything bad about the military in my family.”
As for what makes such a happy, long-lasting marriage, Bonnie attributes their success to faith and family.
“Our whole life has been because of faith and family. That’s it,” she said. “They (the kids) don’t all have to go to the same church, but they all have to have faith.”
Casey added that those two values are the most important things as far as he’s concerned.
“We just stress it to our children all the time that the family’s the thing and you got to keep in the church,” he said. “You’ve got to stay with God because if you don’t you’re on your own.”
He remembered years ago making a comment about wanting a cross. So when his 80th birthday came around, he received eight crosses from their eight children.
But there is also one rule for the McDanel family.
“When we would have a family gathering, the first rule was no politics, and that’s never discussed,” she said. “You can talk about anything else you want. Disagree on anything you want. That’s mama’s rule.”
Bonnie noted that while there may have been some bad moments here and there, the 70 years of matrimony have been 99% good times.
“We have squeezed a lot into our 70 years, but what’s exciting is what’s going to come next,” she said.
As for Casey, he hopes they get to travel in the future and also spend time with their kids.
“Physically, we’re both in good shape,” he said. “I just want to stay close to my children and the friends that we have left, and live out a nice, comfortable life.”
As they live peacefully in retirement, Casey and Bonnie give what money they can to help their family, church and places like the food bank.
“We donate as much money as we can beyond our retirement needs. We give to the church and anyone in the family that needs money we give them something,” he said. “We’ve got everything we need and we’ve always got each other. As long as she holds up, we’ll be OK because I’m getting to the point where I can’t be very fast.”
Normally, the McDanels would get together for a family photo to celebrate such a milestone anniversary, but because of COVID-19 they’re doing something special.
One of their granddaughters, who is a professional photographer, is creating a collage of photos with Bonnie and Casey in the center and the eight children and their spouses surrounding the centerpiece photo.
“We’re going to get that framed and give it to the kids for Christmas, but that’s as close to the family picture as we can get,” Bonnie said.
Ten-year-old Abby Peterson, of Whitehouse, loves horses so much that it fills her heart to the brim with excitement.
Over five years, she’s become a pro at riding and always looks forward to when she gets to ride with her favorite horse, Connor.
“My favorite part of riding the horses is the grooming,” she said. “I just love the horses so much. My heart is full of horses. I want to be a rooting, tooting cowgirl.”
Abby is one of 25 students at the Starbrite Therapeutic Equestrian Center, a nonprofit dedicated to helping kids, adults and veterans with physical, mental, social and psychological disabilities.
She’s been coming to Starbrite ever since it opened earlier this year for weekly riding sessions.
“It helps with my joints,” she said. “I love the horses so much.”
Her dad Eric Peterson, who is also a board member at Starbrite, said the riding helps build strength in her legs and mid-section, and it also helps with her self-confidence.
“It forces her to grip the horse with her legs and keep control of the horse,” he said. “She enjoys riding. She learns more discipline with having to groom the horse and learning the process of what you have to do to ride the horse.”
Peterson said Abby looks forward to riding every week, and she always has a smile on her face.
Starbrite Executive Director Cindy McCall said the riding and grooming of the horse, as well as carrying the equipment, help her clients work on their left and right brain skills, focus, motor skills and strength.
“When they sit on that horse, it forces them to focus,” McCall said. “The power of the horse is great.”
Some of the issues horse therapy can help with are cerebral palsy, ADD, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, brain injuries, Down syndrome and autism.
The center first opened in February, but due to COVID-19 lessons didn’t really start until sometime in June, McCall said.
On Friday evening, the center, located at 15015 FM 848 in Whitehouse, hosted a grand opening and ribbon cutting to showcase what it has to offer.
Program Director Kim Oliver demonstrated the horse therapy sessions with a few of the clients, including Abby, to highlight the benefits of equine therapy.
During the lessons, riders will often get on the horse and receive guidance from the instructors who are also there to ensure everything is safe.
McCall said in every situation there is a person leading the horse and another beside the horse to protect the rider.
She said it’s great to see parents watch their child light up with joy as they ride one of the horses.
“For parents to see their child’s joy, it’s something they’ve never experienced before,” McCall said.
The center is also looking to expand by creating a $1.7 million facility that is expected to be ready in 2022, she said.
McCall said the capital campaign for the project will kick off next year in an effort to add 30 horse stalls, therapy rooms and equipment rooms.
She added that the staff is learning from other facilities in Texas to grow Starbrite in the right way.
“We want to service the children we have well,” McCall said. “We have to grow with the children, staff and horses that we have.”
For those interested in learning more about Starbrite, visit starbritetyler.com or call 903-530-4050.
McCall said students will often ride once a week and people are typically riding on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For new clients, Oliver will go over medical safety to determine if horse therapy is right for each particular person.
For years, people would line up in the early morning hours to receive a Thanksgiving sack of groceries at the Tyler Family Assistance Center, but this year that line was slightly different.
This year, in light of COVID-19 safety, the lines of people became a line of many vehicles. On Saturday morning, they wound through the parking lot of First Baptist Church of Tyler’s annual grocery and ham ministry event.
Pastor Pike Wisner, of First Baptist Church of Tyler, along with many other volunteers, placed sacks of Thanksgiving meal supplies filled with chicken, hams and groceries to hundreds of people.
The groceries included items like green beans, corn, sweet potatoes, cornbread, and a cake mix with icing. The chickens totaled 300 and there were 550 hams for families.
“We normally have a long line of people, and this year we’re having people in their cars,” he said.
The annual distribution has been a tradition for the church for 13 years since the economic recession in 2008.
First Baptist received help from South Spring Baptist Church, Austin Bank, tenants of the Plaza Tower in downtown Tyler and the Bethesda Health Clinic to fill and provide the grocery sacks. The church also got another annual anonymous $10,000 donation to purchase the chickens and hams.
Wisner said the intention was to give out the meals to as many families who need the help as they can, until the supplies run out.
“The Lord has provided for us,” he said. “Because of our gratitude to Him, we can be generous to others.”
He added that it’s great to have unity as Thanksgiving approaches during a year of division and challenging times due to COVID-19.
“Lord willing, we’ll do it until Jesus comes back,” Wisner said.
Church member and volunteer Martha Wheat called the distribution a blessing to serve neighbors.
“It’s something that God has allowed us to do, and that’s to help others,” Wheat said. “God’s good all the time.”
This annual distribution is the largest event to take place at the Tyler Family Assistance Center, which provides food and clothing to about 80 to 90 families. The center is open from 8 to 11 a.m. on Thursdays, and it’s completely staffed by volunteers.
The center serves as ministry under the church and works with the East Texas Food Bank to provide food and services to community members.
“All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart ... ” (2 Corinthians 4:15)