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With This Ring I Thee Wed: A love story
Elmer and Phyllis Gunkel stand near a family portrait. In the photo are, back row from left, Ron, James and Zella while in the front are Elmer, Phyllis, and Theresa. - photo by DENNIS WYATT

She thought he was a showoff.

He was convinced that he had met the girl he was going to marry.

It was 1945. Elmer Morris Gunkel was 13 and Phyllis Petty was 14.

They had met by chance at an Assembly of God church in Stockton.

“I thought he was a show-off acting out like a little boy,” Phyllis recalled.

Elmer was smitten.

“She was cute,” he said.

Phyllis said she found out later that Elmer went home and told his mother “that I met the girl I was going to marry.”

“He probably thought I was cute because I looked like his mother,” Phyllis added.

Today, Elmer and Phyllis have been together 60 years as husband and wife. The big date was Aug. 5, 1950 in a Reno church. Elmer remembered his bride-to-be wearing a satin green dress as she walked down the aisle.

There was never a doubt in his mind the marriage would last forever.

“She was an old-fashioned girl and she was going to be married until death do us part and if that wasn’t the case she’d hurry up the death part,” Elmer said with a twinkle in his eye.

Back in high school, Elmer worked at a drive-in burger joint and Phyllis did a night shift at the cannery.

He’d get off work and then drive straight to the cannery parking lot, pull in and then go to sleep for several hours waiting for his sweetheart to finish her shift.

But before he fell asleep, he made sure he delivered her a treat.

Phyllis was wild about banana splits.

So instead of eating like he was allowed to do when he worked as part of his compensation, Elmer didn’t.

Instead he waited until the end of work so he could fix a banana split and take it to Phyllis.

Both recall they were driving one day near Oro Road in Stockton when Elmer pulled over, put the car in neutral and popped the question.

Phyllis wasn’t expecting a proposal from Elmer.

But she didn’t hesitate for more than a heartbeat.

“Yes,” came the joyful reply.

It helped calm Elmer’s nerves.

Phyllis figured later the reason why he left the car in neutral was in case he didn’t hear the answer he wanted.

“That way he could get out of their quickly,” she said with a chuckle.

Phyllis made it clear that it wasn’t just a young heart speaking back then.

“He was kind and considerate,” she said. “And he was dependable. Still is.”

Elmer and Phyllis will tell you they had their fights in their younger days as newlyweds.

They used the disagreements though to grow stronger.

Now they can’t imagine life without each other.

“He’s a great companion to be around,” Phyllis said.

Elmer made it clear the feeling was mutual with the light-hearted added caveat that “it is good (also) to have someone fix you your meals.”

Northern SJ Valley
has been their home

Although radio jobs took him to Las Vegas and elsewhere, the couple has called the Northern San Joaquin Valley home for most of their life.

Phyllis grew up in Farmington just 12 miles from their home in central Manteca.

She worked for the State of California for 30 years as a mental hygienist.

He worked a variety of jobs ranging from a sales representative for Teton Homes as well as Manteca Trailer, and even ran his own used car lot. But it was his career in radio and as a dance disc jockey that made him known to most Mantecans back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Elmer, in case you’re a long-time Manteca country music fan, is Smokey Silver.

He was a disc jockey on a number of valley stations including former country powerhouse KRAK out of Sacramento. His last gig was on Ed Cardoza’s start-up radio station in the 1990s dubbed The Ranch.

He has a collection of 50,000 plus 45s and large amounts of LPs, CDs, and even 78s

His favorite song among those?

“’With this Ring I Thee Wed’ by Hank Snow’,” came the answer without missing a beat.

With This Ring I Thee Wed
An Angel here beside me
Just a moment more and Heaven will be mine
With This Ring I Thee Wed
As every dream inside me
Comes true each time I hear the church bells chime.
This little band of gold I hold
Will soon be on your finger
A Kiss, a vow, a moment so divine
With This Ring I Thee Wed
And now you’re mine forever
To have and hold until the end of time.
With our hearts tied as one
We leave the church together
Together as we know we’ll always be
In a life just begun
This day will live forever
Like blossoms in a treasured memory.
Your big bouquet may fade away
But as the years go by dear
I’ll take your hand and say each day anew
With This Ring I Thee Wed
I vow I love you truly
And every day you’ll hear me say I do.

Elmer and Phyllis have four children - Ronald Allen, Theresa Lynn, James Morgan, and Zella Kathleen.

And as far as what’s in store for the couple, it is clear from where Phyllis stands.

“We’re going to celebrate the next big one - 75 years,” she said. “The way I figure it is when God comes to get me he’s going to have to chase me down.”