By Maria Saporta
Britt Pendergrast was only 17 when he saw Nan Schwab for the first time at a party at Margaret Bryan’s Dance Studio on Peachtree Street. She was only 14, but she already was one of the most popular girls on the dance floor.
“She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen, and after talking to her, I realized she was the smartest girl I had ever met,” Britt Pendergrast recalled.
That was 80 years ago. On March 30, the Pendergrasts celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary – and on Saturday, April 4, they invited close friends to their home to share their longevity and joy.
In an interview before the party, they were asked if they realized how rare their story is. So few people will find their perfect mate and have their love survive a 75-year marriage.
And it’s even rarer that both of them are physically and mentally sound to still enjoy each other’s company, live independently in their own home and are still super current on the world around them.
To call the Pendergrasts special is understating who they are.
Britt is the romantic – all too willing to gush about his wife. In addition to her beauty and intelligence, he said: “It took me a while to understand that she was the most compassionate and most empathetic person I had met.”
Nan tries to get him to stop.
When asked why, she coyly answers: “I’m embarrassed.”
But she also fondly remembers their five-year courtship.
“Mostly we would ride around and sing,” she says. “We liked the same songs.”
And when they weren’t singing, they were talking about what was going on in the world – and to their pleasant surprise, they realized they shared something special.
“We thought exactly alike,” Nan remembers. “I don’t think people talked about the things we talked about – world peace and civil rights.”
Both Nan and Britt were progressive believers in the days of a segregated South in a small-town Atlanta.
“I think I was 4 years old when I realized there was something terribly wrong here,” Nan says. “The blacks were doing all the work, and white people had all the money.”
She did not inherit her sense of justice. In fact, she used her mother as a guidepost by which to live.
“In any situation, I think about what mother would do and do the exact opposite,” Nan says. “She was a racist and just a general snob.”
She remembers when she was 12 years old going to the store with her mom and getting into a conversation with the butcher about his family.
Her mother reprimanded her. “Be polite to trades people but you have got to remember who you are,” her mother told her.
“Who am I?” Nan asked.
An admiring Britt chimes in: “I fell in love as soon as I saw her. We melded on almost everything – civil rights. the war and peace.”
And that’s how they have lived their life – raising seven children who now have a total of 20 grand-children and 25 great-grandchildren.
But they have dedicated their lives to making the world a better place. Their children provided much of their history in a two-page synopsis of their lives.
Britt, who is now 98, was an executive for many years at the Southern Spring Bed Co. (later Southern Cross Industries) serving as the company’s president.
Following his retirement, he followed his conservation passion to work with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources as the program manager of the Georgia Heritage Trust Program, working to preserve important natural, historical, and recreational sites. While he was at DNR, he helped in the acquisitions of the Palisades area of the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta, the Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Northwest Georgia and the Ossabaw Island Heritage Preserve on the coast.
When he retired from the state, he spent many years on the Georgia Board of the Nature Conservancy.
He also was an early investor in the renovation of the Little Five Points community, where his father had a pharmacy. “It proved to be the only smart investment that I ever made,” Britt said.
Nan, who is almost 95, has been a journalist, community activist, a botanist, horticulturist and author. Dating back to when she was only 22, she served on the Atlanta boards of the NAACP and the Urban League. She was a founder of Help Our Public Education (HOPE), an effort to keep Atlanta public schools open after the 1954 Brown versus the Board of Education decision brought an end to segregation in public schools. For many years, Nan and Britt volunteered as tutors in the Atlanta public school system.
In the 1960s and 70s, the Pendergrasts were active in the peace movement during the Vietnam War, and Britt served as a counselor for conscientious objectors.
Throughout their lives, they have continued to work for world peace. They are still active in the community, in part through their involvement with the Atlanta Friends Meeting (Quakers). Nan brings a flower arrangement from her garden every Sunday for contemplation during the Friends Meeting. Until recently, Nan and Britt published a weekly collection of news articles on subjects near and dear to them and fellow Quakers called News/Views, which is still being published online.
For many years, Nan also wrote freelance articles for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution as well as for Yachting magazine. In 2010, she published her first book, Neighborhood Naturalist, with photos by Britt.
Now she has just finished publishing her second book, For Love of the British Isles: Anglophile Diaries Across the Decades, also with photos by Britt. They will hold a book-signing on May 9 at 2 p.m. at the Tall Tales bookstore in Toco Hills.
So do they realize what a special story they have?
“I think we’ve known that all along,” Nan says. “I married a saint.”
Despite all their similarities, they do approach life differently.
Britt said that when he has a problem, he will think long and hard about the pros and cons, weighing every decision. By comparison, he says Nan tends to be quick judging a situation and making a decision.
“She has an instinct that’s always right,” he says remembering how she was one of the first to believe their were serious issues with Beverly Hall and the Atlanta Public Schools.
“My sympathies are with the teachers,” Nan says, shaking her head at the image of public school teachers being taken to jail in hand-cuffs.
Britt also says he a pessimist while Nan is more of an optimist.
“The optimist can only be disappointed but the pessimist can only be pleasantly surprised when something good happens,” he says. “When something bad happens, it is predictable to the pessimist. When something good happens, I can only be pleasantly surprised.”
Asked how he views the world today, Britt’s pessimism surfaces.
“I don’t see how the collision between the growing world population, declining resources and declining food supply won’t end up as disaster,” he says. “I see a world in conflict with wars and competition for resources.”
But in looking over his life, he speaks of what luck he had to marry Nan and to live to be 98. When he was a teenager, he got really sick with an infection in the days before antibiotics.
“I didn’t expect to live long enough to be married 75 years,” he said. “When I was a teenager I was supposed to die. When I became 50, I had seven children. Life was just wonderful. It was such a pleasure to have a partner who made life such a pleasure.”
“When asked about what advice they can share about their long life and marriage, Nan answers: “You just hang in there, and there it is.”
Then the phone rings. It’s a grandson from Toronto who can’t make it for the celebration.
“You can come for the 80th wedding anniversary,” Britt tells him. “I’ll only be 103.”
One constant throughout their decades together has been music.
At the reception Saturday afternoon, their seven children sing them a song – “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” – with a few customized family edits The fact that they live up a steep driveway gives special meaning to the song:
“The Folks who Live on the Hill”
Our veranda will command a view of wildflowers
The sort of view that we prefer to be ours.
And when the kids grow up and leave us
We’ll sit and look at the same old view
Just we two
And now the kids come back and see us
We laugh and sing and we discuss, the nine of us
(And spouses and grandchildren and great-grandchildren)
Brittain and Nan, who used to be Jack and Jill,
The folks who like to be called
What they have always been called,
The folks who live on the hill,
The folks who on the hill.
Then the children pass the microphone to Nan and Britt Pendergast – and they sing a song that is the soundtrack of their lives. Britt penned the last stanza about the internet:
“Our Love Is Here To Stay”
It’s very clear, our love is here to stay
Not for a year, but forever and a day
The radio and the telephone,
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in time may go
But, oh my dear
Our love is here to stay
Together we’re going a long long way
In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble
They’re only made of clay
But our love is here to stay
The internet and the smart phone
And the TV that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in times may go
Then Britt turns to all the friends and family members gathered in their home and proclaims: “The party continues.”