Divided by health, couple married 70 years gets to spend time together

Joseph Littleton stands in the front room of his Muskingum Drive home in Marietta, where he has preserved his wife’s favorite dolls, decorative plates, small statues and other art. (Photo by Michael Kelly)

MARIETTA — In the 1930s Joseph Littleton was living with his family on Fourth Street in Marietta when someone caught his eye from across the way.

“I told my brother, ‘I’m going to walk that little redhead down the street,'” he said.

That girl was Wanita Vandal, and Littleton later recruited her brothers in a first-date strategy by offering to buy them movie tickets if they brought along their sister.

On July 28, 1947, Joseph and Wanita were married. On July 28 of this year, they spent their 70th wedding anniversary together, the first time they had seen one another for nearly a year.

Joseph Littleton’s life is rapidly coming to a close. Heart disease has marked the calendar for him.

Joseph and Wanita Littleton pose on a sofa in their daughter’s home near Akron while celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary. The Marietta couple live apart because of health problems but got to spend two days with each other thanks to a Dream Foundation grant. (Photo courtesy of Teresa Efaw)

Illness has not only staked out his final months but also divided him from his wife, who now lives with one of their daughters in Garrettsville, near Akron. She could no longer care for herself in their old place on Muskingum Drive in Marietta.

The front room looking out onto the street in the neatly kept house has the hallmarks of a shrine, with Wanita’s collection of dolls, decorative plates, small statues and art carefully arranged on the furniture and in cabinets.

When Dream Foundation heard of his plight through one of Joseph’s hospice attendants, they went to work on granting his final dream — a reunion with his wife and family.

The California-based nonprofit specializes in granting the last dreams of terminally ill adults with less than 12 months to live, the foundation Dream Coordinator Leanna Annunziato said. Over the past two decades, she said, the foundation has made those dreams come true for more than 27,000 people.

“Our mission is to touch lives and meet essential needs by providing inspiration, comfort and closure,” she said.

Joseph and Wanita Littleton look at one another at a gathering held in honor of their 70th wedding anniversary at their daughter Thelma Clutterbuck’s home near Akron. (Photo courtesy of Teresa Efaw)

The foundation’s public relations consultant, Dani Cordaro, said the dreams are sometimes complex, sometimes as simple as providing a computer system to connect with family members and friends or as basic as a new appliance.

“We had one applicant with mouth sores who just needed a refrigerator with an ice-maker,” she said.

Many dream of having more time with family and friends, others dream of meeting someone who has been a hero or personal inspiration for them.

The foundation is entirely funded by individual donations and corporate partnerships, she said, with the support of an “amazing” board of directors.

“We have never turned down a qualified applicant,” she said.

The foundation is run by about 30 staff and a large network of volunteers, she said. Most applicant referrals come from hospice workers and other professionals involved in the care of the applicant, she said.

A worker with Amedisys Hospice in Marietta submitted an application for Joseph after seeing how much he missed Wanita. Dream Foundation managed all arrangements, from transporting Joseph to providing a hotel for him and a catered dinner for the large family gathering that attended the wedding anniversary for the couple. They even gave him a dozen roses for him to give to his wife.

The news about the approval of his dream was delivered by a delegation from the Washington County Veterans Service office, including executive director Brian Giesey.

“I think it was a surprise to him,” Giesey said.

Giesey said Joseph told them it would mean the world for him just to see Wanita on their anniversary and have dinner with her and their family.

“To be honest, she is my life,” Joseph told them.

The event itself was a long-awaited reunion for Joseph.

“I was very happy to see her,” he said. “We got there, and people started taking pictures, we didn’t get a chance to talk then, but we talked quite a bit after dinner.

“We talked about family, about our kids, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren. They’re pretty good sized kids now, wonderful kids, very polite, very nice. They gave me a big hug when I got there, and again when I left.”

Wanita’s poor health prevented her from being interviewed for this story.

Joseph was born in Missouri, but his family settled in Marietta when he was 4 years old and he has lived in the city for most of his life. He did service in the Navy, enlisting at age 17 in October 1945 shortly after the end of World War II. He worked at the Crystal Ice plant in the days when home delivery of blocks of ice was commonplace, and later hired on with the Ohio Department of Transportation as a mechanic.

His heart condition revealed itself when he had to have bypass surgery and that forced his retirement from the ODOT job, but he got work less physically demanding with Pinkerton Security in Parkersburg and continued with the firm for 20 years until retiring again.

Over that time, he and Wanita raised a large family, with children – six girls and one boy still living, Joseph said – who stepped up to care for them in recent years.

He remembers the night of May 13, 1960, as the pinnacle of tragedies in his life. He, Wanita and their children were living on Fourth Street and he was working at the ODOT yard.

“They came up and told me my house had burned down,” he said. “Two of my young sons died.”

“But we made it through,” he said. After a long pause, he added, “My wife’s a wonderful old girl, I’m proud of her, Wanita.”

In addition to hospice workers and other professionals, he also gets help from his daughter Teresa Efaw and a granddaughter, Alicia Thompson, who lives next door.

“I really think dad enjoyed himself,” Teresa said, recalling the wedding anniversary. “Dad needs someone looking after him, and at this time of life that’s what you do.”

Another daughter, Thelma Clutterbuck, who still works and gets help from one of her sons to care for her mother, said her mom came to her Garrettsville home last year for medical attention.

“They wanted to keep her in a nursing home, but I didn’t want to have her in a nursing home until I really have to,” she said.

Joseph has lived in the big house on Muskingum Drive since 1971. He gestured around the kitchen, saying that his brother Roy Littleton did all the cabinet work in the house during a long remodeling process after they moved in. He points to fine built-in woodwork in the front room, a setting for Wanita’s prized possessions.

With a caring family, a secure home he’s lived in decades, and professional health service, he wanted just one thing — to see his wife again.

“I love her,” he said. “And I miss her very much.”