In the spirit of Valentine's Day, we're shining a spotlight on a long-time Charity Ride couple by sharing their love story and advice for a long and happy marriage.
After graduating high school in 1963 in Sacramento, CA, Gary Johnson was recruited to help his father build a cabin in a rural area near Lake Tahoe for the summer. While working in the hot sun on a construction site probably wasn’t what any 17-year-old wanted, but for Gary, it turned out to be the best summer of his life – all because he met a girl. Right outside of Lake Tahoe in the small, mountain town of Strawberry, CA, was a family-run gas station and grocery store. And, every opportunity Gary had to get away from the construction site, he took it to visit the grocery store to flirt with the girl behind the candy counter – Nancy. As Gary recalls, Nancy was “hot” and he knew she was “just different” from the very beginning. Gary took Nancy out on their first date at the local mountain resort in Strawberry, where all eyes were on them and they quickly became the talk of the town given the population was only 27 people. However, their summer of flirting flew by and they went their separate ways. Nancy was off to college and Gary entered the Air Force. They agreed to live their lives without any strings attached but promised to stay in touch – and they did just that. Every day they were apart, Gary and Nancy would write letters to each other. This continued for almost a year before Gary finished boot camp and was stationed at Travis Air Force Base just outside of Napa, CA. Once they were back in close proximity, it didn’t take long for Gary and Nancy to reconnect. On August 8, 1964, Gary took Nancy out another date – this time in Sacramento. At the Big Top restaurant, Nancy politely ordered a small plate because she didn't know how much money Gary had to spend. But even after she ate her tiny meal, the date continued with hours of talking and by the end of the night they were officially “going steady.” Gary knew right off the bat that Nancy was the one. He even told her exactly how their relationship was going to go. But for Nancy, Gary had to woo her into loving him. It was his taste for romance that reeled her in. Because according to Nancy, “how do you not fall in love with a guy who writes you love letters and tells you how special you are every day?” Their relationship quickly turned serious and Gary proposed to Nancy just a few months later on Christmas Eve 1964. Much to Gary’s dismay, the proposal wasn’t very romantic at all. They were gathered at his grandmother’s house and he asked Nancy to go outside with him. Standing in the front yard, with all his relatives watching from the window, Gary pulled out the ring and startled Nancy. She flung out her arms and the ring went flying. From the window, everyone was laughing their butts off. Eventually, they found the ring and Nancy said yes. It might not have been the romantic moment Gary was hoping for, but it was still memorable to say the least.
Soon after, Gary got stationed to Alaska. At this point, both Gary and Nancy’s parents wanted them to break up. None of their family members thought their marriage would actually come about with them being separated again. But they stayed fervent in their love, continuing to write daily letters to each other. Even with the odds stacked against them, they did it. On January 8, 1966, Gary and Nancy said “I do” right back at the mountain resort in Strawberry.
Flash forward to present day and Gary and Nancy Johnson just celebrated 55 years of marriage. If you ask them what the secret to lasting marriage is, it’s keeping the romance alive and continuing to date each other. There was a time in their lives when they had a lot of travel between them. So anytime they had time together, it was romantic because they made the most of it by going out on fun dates and making memories. Nowadays, Gary and Nancy have a date night each week. According to Gary, “if you want to have a good week, you don’t miss date night.” He also says that even after 55 years together, “there’s still some mystery…there’s still more to know about a person.” Nancy cherishes their date nights and loves that Gary is “still her boyfriend after all these years.” PS – All those love letters mentioned, Gary and Nancy still have every single one. Swoon!
Q+A with Gary and Nancy Johnson:
1. What is your favorite thing about each other?
Nancy: My favorite thing about Gary is his sense of humor and romance.
Gary: I don’t know if I have one favorite thing about Nancy. But I do know she’s hot!
2. Do you have any romantic traditions?
Gary: Since our very first anniversary, I’ve given Nancy one long-stemmed rose for each year that we’ve been married.
Nancy: It’s expensive, so I never thought he’d keep it up once we got so many years under our belt, but he has. He just gave me 55 of the most beautiful roses.
3. When did you start riding motorcycles together?
Nancy: Gary went on his first motorcycle ride when he was living in Alaska and he crashed, so I was hoping it would be his last. But later, when we were living in Florida, he picked it back up and rode with friends mostly. I rarely rode with him at that point. It wasn’t until we got involved with the Charity Ride that I really started riding with him. And, we mainly joined the Ride simply because we wanted to be a part of it after learning about it from my involvement with Winston Cup Racing Wives Auxiliary.
Gary: Our first year on the Ride was 1997. We sponsored a breakfast and then followed along in our motorhome. Then, we came back in 1998 and rode our motorcycle with the group and we’ve been a part of the Ride every year since.
4. Why is riding motorcycles special to you as a couple?
Nancy: I like it because it’s like hugging each other for a really long time! Plus, when you’re out in the open on a motorcycle, you enjoy and see everything around you so much better. It’s a great adventure!
Gary: I agree. And one time Nancy leaned forward and said in my ear, “let’s take the long way home.” That’s what did it for me!
5. Describe your relationship in one word.
Nancy: Fun – we always have fun together no matter what we do.
Gary: Passionate – it’s the passion that fuels the commitment.
6. Any special Valentine’s Day plans?
Nancy: Usually, we’re in Daytona for Valentine’s Day because we go down for the NASCAR races. We’d go to the Chart House and sometimes we’d see some of the racers – Earnhardt, Childress, etc. It became our tradition to eat there for Valentine’s Day.
Gary: It began in the late 90s and we’ve gone every year since. Every year when we visit, it continues to become more special because of all the memories we’ve made doing it over the years.