When Jack Sklar moved to Lillian Wallach’s block in Brooklyn almost 80 years ago, he made quite a first impression. “I said, ‘Oh my God, that guy is for me,’” Lil recalls, and she told her mother she’d found the boy she would marry. Her mom didn’t take it too seriously — they were both 14 years old at the time, after all — but Lil knew what she was talking about. On April 16, the Sklars will celebrate their 74th anniversary.
Growing up in the Depression was tough. “Nobody had jobs, my brothers were in the service, and my father couldn’t work,” says Lil. But there were bright spots. Jack was a grocery delivery boy, and Lil would insist that her mother tip him a dime instead of the usual nickel, even though that meant she wouldn’t have milk money at school the next day. “I didn’t want him to think we were poor,” she says. Soon after they met, Lil and Jack became boyfriend and girlfriend.
After they graduated from high school, Jack started college, but he couldn’t ignore the terrible situation in Europe. He started working in a shipyard in Baltimore to support the war effort, and soon he was called up in the draft. The shipyard offered him a deferment, but Jack said, “No, I want to go.” He was 19 years old.
As the war raged on, Jack, now an army combat medic, knew that his division would be sent overseas. So he got a furlough, traveled to Chicago where Lil was living with relatives, and married his love in her sister’s apartment. A few days later, he shipped out from Boston, assigned to the 106th Infantry Division.
There is much written about the 106th Infantry Division, which suffered devastating losses in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. When Lil began to learn about it in the newspapers and on the radio, her father and sister reassured her, telling her that she’d have heard if anything had happened to him. What they didn’t tell her was they’d been hiding telegrams from the U.S. Army notifying her that Jack had been captured and taken as a prisoner-of-war by the Germans.
The story of Jack’s harrowing capture, brutal imprisonment, and eventual release is movie material and too long to adequately capture here. When he came home in 1945, he was malnourished and jaundiced and received three Purple Heart medals. Despite his weakened condition, Lil was overjoyed to see her husband.
The couple lived with Lil’s family in Chicago before settling in Skokie. Jack began a long successful career with Sears as a store manager and Lil worked selling fur coats for Evans Fur Company. We sat down with the youthful couple (unbelievably both 94) in their Skokie condominium, surrounded by photos of their extensive family that includes three children, six grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren. Family is a theme the couple returns to often.
Make It Better: When you were reunited after the war, you’d barely lived together. What was it like when Jack came home?
Lil: Jack and I got to know each other before we married, but we never did anything — I wouldn’t even know what to do. I knew nothing until my older sister started explaining things to me. So many things I should know!
Jack: When two people marry, you’re living with someone who has a completely different idea of what it is to live with someone. You really don’t know until you do it. No matter how much you love each other, you’re still strangers.
Lil: But when Jack came home from the army, it was like New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July and all the big holidays at once.
After over 70 years of marriage, what is it that you appreciate most about each other today?
Lil: That I still love him, and that he’s a wonderful husband and father. He would do anything for me and I would do anything for him. I appreciate everything we have, and without him there would be nothing.
Jack: That she’s been very faithful and we get along very well — though of course we have our moments — and we understand each other.
You two seem so close. How have you had such a successful marriage?
Lil: We are always together. We have friends [who are married] and they never got along like Jack and I did. Wherever we go, everybody knows us. In every store we go to, they know us by name: Lil and Jack.
Jack: We’re not looking for new experiences like younger people are; they divorce or whatever. We’ve always said this is our life, and we live it.
Is there any advice you’d give to younger couples who are perhaps facing difficulty?
Lil: Be truthful and tolerant with each other. Take the good with the bad.
What have been some of your happiest times together and what do you enjoy doing now?
Jack: When we were younger, we traveled a lot. We had winter homes in different parts of the country. We went on cruises, we flew to San Francisco and took a luxury bus all the way down to San Diego. Now, the energy isn’t the way it was, but we can’t let it stand in our way. We go to everything that our granddaughter and her kids invite us to. We don’t miss anything.
Lil: The happiest time was when Jack came home from service. Now, it’s family, we’re always with family. My daughter calls us every single night at 10 p.m. My son is coming here tonight, and we’re all going out to supper.
Is family more precious to you because of what you went through in the war?
Lil: No, family is precious to us because that’s the way we’ve always been. That’s the way we are.
More from Make It Better:
- Long-Distance Marriage: How These Couples Make It Work
- 17 Spots for Dinner and a Show Around Chicago (Date Night, Sorted!)
- 15 of Chicago’s Most Romantic Restaurants for Valentine’s Day and Beyond
Marjie Killeen is a freelance writer who has been covering sex and relationships for Make It Better since it began. She is a regular supporter of the Greater Chicago Food Depository and is a member of the Human Rights Campaign.