It isn’t everyone who can brag of marrying their childhood sweetheart. Most boys develop an interest in girls, and vice-versa, at some point during their elementary school years, but almost none find their soulmate that early in life.
But in the tiny town of Helenwood, more than 80 years ago, Joe Duncan and Lou Etta Phillips did just that.
Lou Etta was born in 1925 in the New River community, the youngest of seven children of Mitchell and Susie Huskins Phillips. Joe was born in Helenwood, one of 10 children of Flem and Cassie Lee Duncan.
The Phillips family split their time between New River,where Mitchell was the railroad tower master — and Helenwood, where they owned a farm that neighbored the Duncans’ farm.
It was there, in February 1930, when he was six and she was five, that Joe Duncan gave Lou Etta a Valentines Day card. It read: “I swear by all the stars above, you are the only one I love. Some day I will ask you to be mine, in the meantime — Let’s be valentines.”
As the Great Depression played out on the northern Cumberland Plateau, life happened for Joe and Lou. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, later transferring to the Air Force and serving as a navigator, where he reached the rank of 2nd lieutenant before World War II ended. She was also involved in the war effort, moving to Miami to join her older sister in the U.S. Office of Censorship, which was tasked with ensuring that sensitive military information did not fall into enemy hands.
But by 1945, the war had ended, and Joe and Lou both wound up back home in their native Scott County. It had been 15 years since Joe had given Lou that Valentines Day card, and he made good on the pledge that card had made: he asked Lou to be his. The couple wedded the following June in New River, beginning a marriage of seven decades that saw Lou by Joe’s side as he began a career as an FBI agent, an attorney, an elected criminal court judge in Knoxville and, ultimately, a 15-year tenure on the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals.
From school kids who met their families’ neighboring farms in Helenwood in 1930, Joe and Lou Etta Duncan lived a love story that is the stuff of storybooks, knowing one another for 87 years and being married for 70 of them.
And, as in the storybooks, Joe and Lou truly did live happily ever after. Their story, sadly, ended on April 30, when Lou passed away peacefully at home in the middle of the night, with Joe by her side. She was 92, and had battled cancer for 35 years.
This weekend, the Duncan family — whose roots still run deep in Scott County, even though only one of the grandchildren of Flem and Cassie Duncan still lives here (Duane Limburg) — will gather to celebrate the life and pay their final respects to the woman they knew as Aunt Lou. She is to be buried in the Duncan Family Cemetery on Baker Highway in Huntsville on Saturday.
Life wasn’t always a fairy tale for Joe and Lou. She survived diphtheria as a child. And, besides her decades-long bout with cancer, the couple lost two children at birth. And, yet, through life’s ups and downs, their life together might well have been scripted by one of the classic novelists in American literature. Phillip Duncan, Joe and Lou’s only son, who serves as an alderman in Falls Church, Va., said his mother made her mark in life as a giver — a “stalwart booster of the pursuits of her husband, son, grandchildren, and extended family” as she spent much of her life attending various functions and performing civic duties from the couple’s Knoxville home.
While Joe Duncan lived a life that was very much in the public eye, as an elected judiciary official in East Tennessee’s largest city for nine years and as brother and uncle of congressmen who represented the district in Washington, his wife was the silent partner — always in the background, but always supporting her husband’s endeavors.
“She’s like a lot of people who never saw their own name in life,” Phillip Duncan told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “The park she made was largely seen in the actions of others. She had a hidden hand in a lot of their successes.”
Somehow, Lou found time to care for both her mother, Susie, and her sister, Helen, in her home as their health declined. She was also a lover of cats, and devoted much of her time to caring for her feline companions.
“She lovingly nurtured a long, long line of cherished cats; any feline lucky enough to be adopted by Lou got a taste of heaven on earth,” Phillip Duncan said.
In some ways, it was perhaps fitting that by Lou’s bed as she slipped from this life to the next on April 30 were Joe and Sox, her long-time faithful feline. Because it was her husband and her cats who she devoted her life to, perfectly content to live her life in the background as she helped others in life.
So to all the young adults who are ready to spread their wings in this life, take note of Joe and Lou, and their 70-year love story that actually becomes 87 years if you date it back to that February day on a Helenwood farm in 1930. You probably won’t find your soulmate when you’re barely old enough to attend kindergarten. But, maybe, if you’re truly fortunate, you’ll find what Joe and Lou found.