Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Martha and Frank Ryan hold a photo taken on their wedding day, April 11, 1953.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Martha and Frank Ryan hold a photo taken on their wedding day, April 11, 1953.
EUGENE — There's something steadfast about marriage in the Ryan clan.

Frank and Martha Ryan have been married for almost 60 years. Eleven of their 13 children have wed so far and all are committed to their original spouses.

"People tell us that's just unheard of these days," says Martha, a petite and straight-talking woman who explains that marriage takes patience and "knowing when to keep your mouth shut."

Frank, a retired telephone company executive, credits common sense. For example, he and Martha in general know when they need to talk something over on the spot, and when it might be better to think things over for awhile.

"I guess the example you set runs downstream to the next generations," Frank explains.  

Both credit strong Catholic values for their sense of commitment. They grew up in Los Angeles, each from families of three siblings. Frank's uncle was a priest and his sister a nun in the same order to which Martha's aunt and cousin belonged — the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Martha's parents had divorced — her father being an alcoholic. Raised by her grandmother and another aunt, she was determined to give her own children a stable home life some day.

She attended an all-girls Catholic high school with Frank's sister. When time came for prom, Martha asked the sister if young Frank might be willing to accompany her. But Frank, who attended an all-boys school, had already committed to another girl for the evening. Their meeting would be delayed.

Frank was recently out of the Army when he returned to Los Angeles in 1952. He recalls seeing Dwight D. Eisenhower riding down the street on the presidential campaign trail shortly before he met Martha through a young adults group at his parish.

"I had heard about her while I was in the service," says Frank, who still wears a regulation flat-top haircut. "I was curious."

"I knew he came from a good family," Martha says.

They met in July and were married the following April. Martha was only 19.

"It was kind of a dumb thing to do, when you look at it by today's standards," Frank says with a dry smile.

They were wed at St. Anselm Church in Los Angeles. Frank was not especially nervous that day. Martha fretted a bit about arrangements, hoping all would go smoothly. It did. Frank's uncle was the main celebrant, with both their pastors concelebrating. She wore a classic white dress and he donned a white coat and black tie. Receptions were simpler in those days — cookies and punch in the church hall.

They honeymooned in San Francisco, including an afternoon at the convent where their relatives lived.

Frank had landed a job with the telephone company right out of the military. The couple lived in the San Gabriel Valley for seven years, beginning to have children after the first year of marriage. They moved to Orange County, which would be home for 33 years.

Each had the notion of having six children. But once they reached that point, it seemed like having another was a fine idea. They had their baker's dozen over a span of 21 years — nine boys and four girls.  

"People say, 'You must have worked so hard,'" Martha says with a shrug. "You just pick them up when they need you and then put them down when they're better. You don't make big plans." Eventually, the older siblings took care of the younger ones.

"You kind of have to keep things under control," Frank recalls. "The kids had their own duties. Some people might say sometimes we had too much discipline." He explains that the Catholic culture in which they lived helped, giving a strong sense of right and wrong.

Neither recalls the house being chaotic. Martha does remember needing to raise her voice often. The hardest times were when children fell ill.  

Martha recalls liking Frank's mother, who was helpful, but not interfering. She tries to work the same way with their 27 grandchildren.

One of the most important things in marriage, experts say, is knowing how to disagree well. Here's how the Ryans have done it: When Martha gets irritated, she makes her feelings known. That helps her get over it. Frank tends to set anger aside until he thinks it over, but comes back to the problem. The key to their success is that each knows the other's style and has come to respect it.

The Ryans once visited a daughter in Eugene and fell in love with the green. They moved up 20 years ago and live in a house with a backyard facing St. Paul Parish. One of their delights is listening to the school children play at recess.

Frank volunteers for the parish St. Vincent de Paul food distribution ministry. Martha is one of the parish quilters who offer their handiwork for raffles.

The couple has learned that sticking with something can bring great rewards.  
"You learn that life is good sometimes," Frank says. "Despite the ups and downs, everything turns out for the best."

The Ryan children — who are spread from New Mexico to all along the west coast — are planning a 60th anniversary party for their parents this spring in Eugene.