Nothing reaffirms life and love with such alarming clarity as a near-death experience.
And although it happened more than 25 years ago, Lakewood Ranch couple Bob and Peggy Donaldson can recall every minute detail of that day on Lake Erie.
In August 1975, the couple had set sail from one marina to another. But once on the water, waves as tall as 8 feet pushed their vessel over. Because of the sheer power of the waves, the Donaldsons could not upright the boat and realized they would exhaust themselves in the fight. They attempted to flag down help but were unsuccessful.
Clinging to their overturned boat and fighting for every minute of life, Bob and Peggy spent time re-evaluating their relationship and priorities in life and eventually tied themselves to the boat, in case they lost consciousness and died.
“It was a very scary discussion, but we had to have it,” Peggy says.
Nine hours after they capsized, another boat, which was blown off-course, found them. Both Bob and Peggy were suffering from hypothermia, but Bob told the sailors to take his wife to seek medical attention, if she needed it, and to rescue him later. Fortunately, the men were able to take them both to shore.
“He has bought me some beautiful gifts over the years, but nothing he has given me will compare to hearing him offer his very life so that I would be saved,” Peggy says.
The Donaldsons still send a Christmas card every year to the man who saved them, thanking him for yet another year together.
This Valentine’s Day, the Donaldsons, who have been married for 48 years, will celebrate quietly — likely at home with some fresh seafood for dinner.
After all, no box of chocolates or lavish gift could ever compare to what the two already have: each other.
“I can’t believe it’s been as long as it has been,” Peggy says, smiling. “It doesn’t seem possible.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Bob Donaldson was on leave from the U.S. Army, when his relatives told him about a post-high school group at a local church. When Bob completed his duty and returned home, he plugged into the group.
Young adults there collected pennies for UNICEF and completed other community service projects together. They’d go out to eat together after church each week, as well.
“It just kind of evolved … with her very patient and quiet waiting,” Bob says, casting a playful glance at his wife.
They both erupt laughing.
“Quiet is one thing I’m not,” Peggy says, shaking her head.
As the two became more acquainted, Bob got the feeling Peggy was interested in him but never acted on it. She was a bit too tall for him, he’d thought.
“I was a marked man, from her version of the story,” Bob adds.
Peggy chuckles with her husband and then smiles.
“I fell in love with him before I knew him, really,” she says. “I really don’t know why. I think it was how he carried himself, how he spent his time. He had the characteristics I wanted in a husband.”
And then one day at a group outing, Bob bought his future wife’s lunch. Their first date was to see the film, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
The couple got engaged in October 1962, after Bob saved up enough money for an emerald-cut engagement ring. The day he bought it, Bob picked Peggy up from choir rehearsal and handed her a paper bag, saying he’d picked up a sample of her favorite perfume.
Tired, Peggy thanked him and tossed the bag onto the floorboard of the car — until Bob finally convinced her to pick it up and look inside it.
The couple married May 10, 1963.
Bob worked hard to provide for his growing family, working first as a metallurgist and gradually working his way up the corporate ladder.
Peggy stayed home with their three sons and also found a voice advocating against domestic violence while living in the Detroit area. After receiving training, she helped with a domestic-violence crisis line and also did educational programming at schools to help break the cycle of abuse.
The couple moved from Ohio to Longboat Key in 1992 and lived there until 1999, when they moved to Lakewood Ranch.
The Donaldsons say each year that goes by brings its own joys and challenges, but their love for one another has only grown deeper over time, because they’ve faced each challenge together.
“I say to people, ‘You have no idea what those vows mean (when you get married),’” Peggy says. “After you’ve been down (the road), you understand what you say.”
“You really appreciate it — understand the depth of it after time,” Bob says. “The hard part of marriage is working through that stuff (that’s hard). That, to me, makes it more (beautiful). If it were all roses, where would the substance be?”
The Donaldsons say it is important, in marriage, to embrace each other’s differences. For example, Bob is organized and methodical and always has “one more question.” Peggy is spontaneous and more romantic in nature.
“You have to understand you’re different people and you brought different things into the relationship,” Peggy says. “You need to tolerate, compensate, ignore and trust those characteristics.”
“We complement one another,” he says. “Those skills or strengths — our differences — seem to complete and bring us together. Each of us appreciates those traits in the other.”
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].