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Valentine’s Day: Respect, humor and love guide Tom and Sandy McKinney to 54-year marriage

MADISON – Tom and Sandy McKinney never realized the magic that a few bottles of Pepsi-Cola could give.

The McKinneys recently celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary. Their relationship has endured the greatest of times, the worst of times.

“Our first meeting occurred in 1954, which was 68 years ago,” Tom said. “We paid very little attention to each other, even though Sandy now claims when she saw me it was ‘love at first sight.’”

Tom and Sandy grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. Tom was a third-grader at Curry School when his interest perked for a new girl, a cute redhead, who entered the classroom and sat at a desk near him. “We got along fine as classmates through the years,” Tom said. (Curry School was affiliated with Woman’s College that later consolidated with the University of North Carolina and known as UNC-G.)

The couple has realized some truths that kept their love and marriage strong for so many years:

* Couples must understand they are different people. Each must give space to the other, when needed.

* Always respect each other.

* Do not let disagreements dominate.

* Try to never go to bed angry.

* Care for your family and friends.

* Develop interests that you can participate in together.

* Develop interests that you can enjoy by yourself.

* Try to find humor wherever you can.

* Say “I love you” and hug often.

* Let Faith and Love guide your way.

Sandy’s father was manager of the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company, which sponsored a float in the town’s Christmas parade. During the 1956 Christmas season, Sandy invited Tom to ride on the Pepsi float. A first date? “I was oblivious to that designation. All I was thinking about was how many Pepsis I could slug down during the parade,” Tom said.

During their school years, Tom and Sandy were friendly classmates. However, in high school Tom started paying more attention to Sandy. As juniors, Tom wanted asked Sandy on a date to see “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“It was a great movie, and we had a very nice time,” Tom said about the start of their dating life. By high school graduation in 1963, they were “going steady.”

Tom committed to join the U.S. Marine Corps in their senior year. He wanted to fulfill his military obligation; by enlisting early, Tom was guaranteed further education in the Marine Corps Air Wing and eligibility to attend college with the GI Bill.

Meanwhile, Sandy enrolled at the University of North Carolina. Tom and Sandy had fallen in love; being apart was difficult, even with the U.S. Mail staying busy to deliver their love letters.

Their relationship continued to grow. Whenever Tom had time off, he returned to Greensboro, if possible, to visit Sandy. His military assignments sent him to Parris Island, South Carolina and then Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for more training.

Next, Tom was stationed in Memphis, Tennessee for testing to determine the advanced school he would attend. He was then off to Jacksonville, Florida for aviation ordnance training.

Tom’s next duty station was Cherry Point, North Carolina. Tom’s squadron deployed to Atsugi, Japan; Da Nang, Vietnam; Iwakuni, Japan; and back to Da Nang for a second tour of duty. Tom also served at Marine bases in Key West, Florida; Yuma, Arizona; and Naha, Okinawa. Tom returned to the United States in 1967 and was released from active duty as a Sergeant.

Tom and Sandy’s relationship intensified and led to their engagement. They decided that Tom should get two years of college before they married. Apparently, Tom became impatient; after one year, Tom and Sandy were married in 1968 in Greensboro, North Carolina in a large wedding.

“Our favorite part of the wedding was when it was over, and we could head out on our way,” Tom said. They honeymooned across Virginia and especially enjoyed Williamsburg.

Sandy moved into Tom’s apartment – their home for several years. Tom enrolled in Guilford College to pursue a degree in business management, worked as a grocery clerk and attended night classes.

Sandy worked as an administrative assistant at Greensboro Board of Realtors. “Between work, school, studying and writing papers, there was not much time left for good social life, but we were happy and preparing for a future together,” Tom said.

In 1971, Tom did obtain his bachelor’s degree in business management from Guilford. He accepted a job offer at Greensboro Police Department as Civilian Director of Records/Information and Computer Operations. “At that time, many police departments were attempting to hire civilian professionals to replace uniformed officers, who (returned) to street policing,” he said.

Sandy continued to work at the University of North Carolina-G until the birth of their first child, Paul.

The McKinneys purchased an attractive, three-bedroom home in a middle-class neighborhood in Greensboro. Soon, their second son, Jason, arrived and they all lived happily as a family.

After nine years at Greensboro Police Department, Tom had accomplished a solid background in law enforcement and technical advancements that would improve law enforcement discipline. He accepted the position of Principal Consultant with Planning Research Corporation in northern Virginia/Washington, D.C. This job took him to many police, fire and EMS agencies in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom.

Tom worked as a consulting project manager for technical projects, like Computer-Aided Dispatch and Records Management Systems. In 1989, Intergraph Corporation offered him a Senior Management position to introduce the company into the emergency response and technical services industry. This job brought the McKinneys to Alabama.

In 1992, Tom and Sandy formed their own company, McKinney & Associates Inc.; Sandy was President, and Tom was a Vice President. Continuing to work with public safety agencies, McKinney & Associates became a preferred subcontractor to Northrop Grumman. Tom and Sandy successfully operated their company until 2015.

“In life and love, there are bound to be ‘ups and downs,’” the McKinneys realize. Along with the intense love and happiness that Tom and Sandy enjoyed, they also experienced heartbreaking tragedies.

In 2007, their son died as a result of a boating accident. Some 18 months later, Jason died, also the result of an accident. Clearly, this event was the most devastating one of their lives . . . which they will never get over.

Tom and Sandy have been blessed with two grandsons, Cameron and Rowan. Both grandsons have graduated from high school, are working and are pursuing higher education. Cameron lives in Huntsville; Rowan lives in Melbourne, Florida. Tom and Sandy have relied on their lifelong love for each other, and now they pay special attention to their grandsons.

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