It’s not often we get to retrace the steps we’ve taken on our path through life. The road is long and winding, and going back to revisit the stops along the way is not always possible. But for Gail and Paul Appeldorn, their 50th wedding anniversary this year brought the opportunity to do just that. And their “trip of a lifetime” included coming back to where it all started for them: New Paltz’s Mohonk Mountain House.
Earlier this month, the couple returned to the historic Victorian-era mansion to stay overnight in the same room they occupied on their honeymoon, on the sixth floor in the stone house facing the valley. The trip was put together by the couple’s daughter, Holly, and their son-in-law, David Waldron, who did all the research to determine exactly which room the Appeldorns had stayed in 50 years ago.
The honeymoon that took place back then — and does it not seem appropriate that a marriage lasting half a century took place in “the summer of love?” — was not actually the beginning of the story there for the two. The Appeldorns met at the Mountain House two years earlier, in 1965, when each was working a summer job there: Paul was a prep cook and Gail waited tables at the restaurant. Neither is from New Paltz and each was attending college at the time at different schools, in different states, even; she in Springfield, Ohio and he in South Carolina. But life is a funny thing, and sometimes, the stars align.
She saw him first, Gail says. “Who is that,” she asked her friend, as she relays the story now. “And who is sitting on his lap?” It wasn’t long before Jane — the girlfriend sitting on Paul’s lap — made her exit from the scene, and when she did, “the rest was history,” as people like to say in the storybooks. Paul’s brother Cliff worked at Mohonk, too, and when Gail and Paul went out on their first date, she confidently told Cliff, afterward, “I’m going to marry your brother.”
The couple had both made their way to Mohonk through family members. As a young girl growing up in Chappaqua, NY, Gail had an aunt who was a summer-long resident at the Mountain House, who brought family up every year to enjoy the bucolic setting. Eventually Gail’s brother went to work in the gardens at Mohonk, and she followed his lead to take that summer waitressing job during a college break while majoring in English at Wittenberg University. Paul says that on his part, his stepmother was acquainted with someone in the Smiley family, and through that connection he got his summer job working in the pantry.
Paul made $6 a day in the kitchen, and waitresses got $1.25 an hour plus modest tips. That doesn’t sound like much, but it went far enough in 1965, and their pay included room and board in the dormitory-style housing on site for the staff. “I managed to save $1,000 over the summer,” says Paul, “which was enough to buy my books at Clemson [University] and last the entire year.”
Without access to a car, and with the only way down to the village by taking “the stage” (basically an oversized taxi, says Gail), they didn’t spend much time in New Paltz other than hanging out in a few of the bars at night, as college kids are known to do. One favorite place was The Homestead; another the Wicky-Wacky.
By the second summer, Paul had graduated and was working in Manhattan, but he continued to come up to Mohonk on weekends. Cliff (who still worked at Mohonk and today is a Gardiner-based architect) would pick his brother up at the bus station in town — which looks exactly the same today as it did back then, Paul notes — and the budding relationship with Gail continued.
When she went back to school in Ohio, and he was working in New York City, they stayed connected with nightly phone calls. “That was basically how we courted,” Paul says.
The wedding was held on August 12, 1967 in the backyard of Gail’s family home in Chappaqua. The two-night honeymoon stay at the Mountain House was a gift from their co-workers there, who chipped in to give them the memorable experience. After the wedding ceremony in Chappaqua, Paul remembers, someone had tied rocks to the hubcaps on their car, so when they drove up the hill to Mohonk to begin their married life, they noisily disrupted “Movie Night” being held outside on the lawn.
But when people saw the “just-married” decorations on the car, Gail says, “everybody stood up and cheered.”
On their recent anniversary trip back to the Mountain House, they took their Florida-based grandchildren, Mac, 13, and Alice, 7, with them. “They loved everything about Mohonk,” says Paul. “I think Alice will always remember the paddleboat ride on the lake, with people throwing fish food from the porch and the fish leaping around the boat. Although she says playing bingo in the parlor on a rainy day was her favorite part!”
“This has been a miraculous trip for us,” says Gail, “because it’s tying all the ends together, and our whole family was involved on the journey.” When asked if she sees any changes up at Mohonk these days, her answer is swift. “None! It is so beautiful, still, and they’ve kept it so pristine, like it always was. That’s part of the magic of Mohonk; they update it, but you don’t see the changes.”
New Paltz and the surrounding areas seem much the same as they were back then to the couple, too, although perhaps more affluent and with larger homes, Paul notes, and with more businesses in town. The buildings in the village look the same, he says; it’s only the names of their inhabitants that have changed. And the college was not part of the state university system at that time.
When interviewing a couple who have been married for 50 years, the question simply must be asked: What is the secret to your success? “Teamwork,” says Gail. “And a mutual goal, for the lack of a better word. We want the same thing out of life, which is something you really don’t know at the beginning. We hardly knew each other when we got married, and either you grow apart or you grow together.”
The early years of their marriage found Paul’s work taking them to live in Toledo, Ohio, then to Chicago, North Carolina and Wisconsin. But after some health issues for Paul and being downsized from his company at age 55, followed by the tragic passing of their son, Scott, in a car accident at age 21, it was time for reevaluation. “We thought, if life can be this short, we can stay where we are and Paul can take another job that was offered, or we can retire and make it work,” says Gail.
Fifty-five is young to retire, but they did, indeed, make it work. Residents of Fountain Hills, Arizona now for nearly 20 years, the Appeldorns spend a great deal of their time doing volunteer work; running blood drives, working with Kiwanis and helping the local Chamber of Commerce with the visitor’s center and organization of the two big annual art fairs in the region.
Volunteering has been a rewarding way of life, Gail says, giving them that sense of community involvement. She jokes that with their last name beginning with the letter “A,” they’re at the top of the list when volunteers are contacted. And because they often work together as a team, they’re known in the area as “Gail ‘n’ Paul.” When someone asks one of them to volunteer, says Paul, they know they’re going to get both.
And that’s just how they like it. “Even with the death of our son, our lives have been blessed,” says Gail. “Totally blessed. We love to volunteer and we do it because we want to. It’s really special to be able to work together.”