A marriage that has lasted for 56 years, a lovely family, successful careers, beautiful home; it has all the appearances of being a fairy tale life. However, Jesse and Sherlee Renteria would both say it is only because of a series of miracles that their journey of love, beginning with a whistle and a cross-country chase, has continued, and their romance endured to enjoy another Valentine’s Day.
Sherlee and her mother lived off and on with her grandparents in Oxford, Neb., and at age eight, Sherlee, her half-sister, only a year old, and their mother moved with her grandparents to a farm that had been her great-grandparents’, 12 miles west of Alliance. A few years later, they moved into town, where her mom had a job at the Jet plant, making condensers, and Sherlee, as a 13-year old, was responsible for the care of her little sister.
“There was a grocery store called Missouri Market, and I had to go through the alley to get there. One day I heard somebody whistling at me and it scared me to death. I was so shy at that time,” said Sherlee.
Eventually, she got to know the neighborhood kids, and discovered the boy behind the whistle was Jesse, a 15-year-old boy from a large Mexican family, which was a red flag for Sherlee’s mother, who did not approve of her daughter dating him. Sherlee said in those days there was real prejudice and there were even separate theaters for Mexicans and whites.
“We were so poor at the time, that we used to cut off box-tops from the milk cartons and then use them to purchase tickets for the theater,” said Jesse.
Sherlee was lonely and began to form a friendship with Jesse and pretty soon they “were really liking each other.” Her mom was absolutely opposed to the relationship and threatened to send her daughter away.
“It got really bad before Christmas and we had a big battle and I went back to my grandparents’ farm. Grandpa tried to talk to me and tell me I was too young,” said Sherlee.
She did give some thought to his words. By that time, she was 14-years old and Jesse was 16. He had quit school and was earning money delivering milk to people in Alliance. He used some of that money to buy Sherlee a purple sweater and a heart necklace. One night, after sneaking out of the house as she had done before, she got into his car, intending to give the gifts back to him and tell him the relationship was over.
“Just then, my grandpa came around the corner. We were scared and we headed north on Hwy. 385 in Jesse’s ‘49 Chevy that he called Roadrunner. Grandpa chased us but eventually gave up,” said Sherlee.
The car was almost out of gas when they stopped at a farm where they were able to pay the farmer for some gas and keep going. Jesse had only $3.50 to his name. They went on to Mission, S.D., parked near a filling station and went to sleep. When they woke up, people were looking at them through the windows. Jesse went into the gas station to ask if there was any way they could earn money for gas.
“The guy said no, and he questioned us and figured we were runaways. He said, ‘I am a chief. I can marry you guys, but there is one stipulation. You have to stay here and work for me.’ That didn’t sound right to us, so we hawked the watch my grandparents had given me for Christmas in order to get gas,” said Sherlee.
“We took off for Laredo, Tex. where I was born. I remembered a blind aunt named Helen who lived there and I thought we might be able to stay with her. Every time we were low on gas, we would get to a town, scope it out and find a car dealership where we could siphon gas from the cars,” said Jesse.
Somewhere in Oklahoma, they stopped at a gas station, where Jesse asked the attendant if they could work to get some gas. Not having any cash, Jesse offered to write a check to pay for the gas.
The man told them he wouldn’t take a check because they had been having a problem with people passing bad checks, and he began to question Jesse, “Where are you from, son? Where are you going? Are you alone?”
When Jesse told him his girlfriend was in the car, the attendant told him to take her into the restaurant and order breakfast and he would pay for it. They went inside and ordered and soon the man and his wife came to sit in the booth with the young couple. What the man then told them made their hearts stop for a moment.
“I know you are runaways and you stopped at the wrong place. I am an undercover FBI agent, and I was sent here because of all the bad checks…. But I am going to give you a break, because we eloped ourselves,” said the man.
He filled their car with gas, gave them a $20 bill and said if they got married, they could come back and live in a trailer on the property and work in the oil wells.
They continued down to Texas, using the gas siphoning technique to fill the tank and eating oranges and grapefruit off the trees. While spending the night in the car, they saw another two people, a lady and her daughter, also doing what they could to survive. They went from one parking meter to another, somehow emptying the contents of the meters into an old washtub.
“We were getting so hungry. While we were at the Rio Grande, Jesse had a string and I had a safety pin, and we tried to catch fish, but it didn’t work, of course. We washed our clothes in the river and while we were there, three or four nights, every night we saw Mexicans walk across the river. We asked all around for the blind woman named Helen,” said Sherlee.
Someone told them about a woman who met that description, but the neighborhood they entered did not look like Jesse remembered. They knocked on the door anyway and discovered it was another blind woman named Helen. She made breakfast for them and excused herself to make a phone call.
“It turned out she was a juvenile officer, and pretty soon a police car showed up and they took us down to the courthouse for questioning. They called my mom and dad and they let Sherlee’s grandparents and mom know we were alright. The police sent us to my brother in-law’s who took us in for a couple days until my folks came down. My parents asked us if we wanted to get married,” said Jesse.
Sherlee’s mom had given up standing in the way of young love and gave written permission for her daughter to marry Jesse. So on Friday, Jan. 30, 1961, 14-year-old Sherlee in a borrowed wedding gown, and 16-year-old Jesse, in a tuxedo rented by his parents, got married at the courthouse by the same judge who had married his parents 50 years before. The thought of it made the judge chuckle all the way through the ceremony.
The newlyweds were escorted back to Alliance by Jesse’s parents, with whom they lived for about a month. Jesse worked in a potato factory and then a steam laundry to support his new bride. About nine months after the wedding, Sherlee had their first baby, Rick. Two years later, Lisa was born, and seven years after that the twins, Jesse and Julie came into the world.
“We were so poor, but we were both brought up with a strong work ethic. We could have had welfare, but we were taught to work hard. Jesse had different jobs, and I took in ironing, did babysitting, whatever I could to help us survive. Our first apartment was in a really rundown place, but we eventually rented a house with an outhouse on the outskirts of town. I was able to get my diploma through a correspondence school and Jesse got his GED. He eventually got on with the railroad,” said Sherlee.
“When I got my first paycheck, I was so blown away by how much it was, I took it back to the railroad office to see if there was a mistake. He figured it again and told me it was correct,” said Jesse.
Though they worked hard, life was not what Sherlee had hoped it would be, and the dream relationship with Jesse was far less than perfect. She prayed for God to help them, and it wasn’t long afterward that two missionaries came to her door, telling her she could have forgiveness and a new life through a relationship with Jesus Christ. She knew that was exactly what she needed. Her life began to change, and Jesse could see her joy, but it caused more conflict because they were not on the same page.
“About seven years later, I came home late from playing in a band, and Sherlee had been watching Billy Graham on television, and she was telling me about it. My daughter, Lisa, who was six years old at the time, came out of the bedroom. She said, “Daddy, I don’t want you to be in Hell.” That’s what broke the veil for me,” said Jesse.
According to the couple, after Jesse put his trust in Christ, it wasn’t automatic smooth sailing, but they both were headed in the same direction, and they were able to lead their family as well. Sherlee believes that is why they are all so close. They have the common bond of both family and faith.
In 1981, they purchased property in the Black Hills, and in 1986, Sherlee worked on the 1880 Train, where she was encouraged by a couple of realtors to get her license. She followed that advice, took classes in Alliance and worked as a realtor for Podhaisky Realty for more than a decade, after which she became a broker and had her own realty company, “No Place Like Home.”
The couple has since retired to their beautiful home in the Black Hills and enjoys their time together more and more as the years go by. Married young, having a single mom and several step-dads, how did they beat the odds? They don’t recommend marrying young, as they did, and they stressed that to all their children, who now have successful marriages and careers.
“It sounds crazy, but with all of my mom’s marriages, I think I became old beyond my years. I had to grow up pretty quick. I wanted my kids to be real brothers and sisters and have a real dad. I had stepdads, but I wanted a real family,” said Sherlee.
They cling to the wisdom from Ecclesiastes, “Two are better than one…. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion….furthermore, if two lie down together, they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? One can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.” They would say Christ has been the third strand that has held their marriage together.
Over the years, they have learned to be sensitive to each others’ feelings, and to work on their marriage every single day. This year, for Valentine’s Day they will do what they have done, even in the very lean times. They will give each other a card containing a heartfelt message that expresses their lifelong love for one another.