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Thriving with an Empty Nest: How a Couple Strengthened Their Long-Term Relationship

February 8, 2021

On Valentine’s Day, people come together to celebrate love in all its forms. In this series, A Dozen Reasons, we explore special relationships that are on full display — and their life-affirming benefits. #NoLimitsOnLove

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Sometimes love takes you on a circuitous route through life, but if you follow the directions, every day can be Valentine’s Day, no matter where you end up.

Take Arnie and Kathy Simonse. They left their comfortable life in the Washington, D.C., suburbs as soon as the youngest of their five kids moved out — and they wound their way up and around Appalachia’s twisting ribbon roads to be full-time volunteers in a depressed rural county in the West Virginia coalfields.

That was more than 20 years ago, and they have planted roots in the community they fell in love with. They both agree that sharing the same life compass and helping others continues to deepen their love for each other and their long-term relationship.

On the face of it, though, they had everything they needed right where they were. “We were very happy in our jobs,” says Arnie, 82, looking back. He had a doctorate in social work and was the director of a midsize nonprofit in Washington, and Kathy was enjoying teaching music.

But in the quiet that had descended on their empty nest, they recognized a need. “I was a little over 60 and Kathy was in her early 50s when our last child left for college. We sat and looked at each other and said, ‘What now? Are we just going to sit here? Is that it?’ We independently had the same gut feeling that it was time to move on when we were feeling happy with our jobs and young enough.”

Bringing meaning to life through acts of service

Kathy and Arnie Simonse

Arnie and Kathy seem to have a knack for always being on the same page, and that’s stood them in good stead over the years. They left suburbia without looking back, and joined a small volunteer community in Wyoming County, West Virginia, to spend a year with the PV Program, an ecumenical nonprofit. There they worked in the local foodbank (which they now run), visited homebound people, and helped the local St. Vincent de Paul with home repair and furniture distribution for families in need, and Kathy again taught music.

They were hooked. That was 20-plus years ago, and they still live in the small town of Pineville. “We love where we are in West Virginia,” Arnie explains. “We had to get away from the rat race in the D.C. area, from money, competition, everyone wanting to be winning.

“There’s a simplicity of life and beauty of nature here, and in the people and their culture there’s a definite ‘love of place,’” he explains. “People define who they are by these mountains, and I feel there’s a sadness about migration due to lack of employment — when someone leaves, it’s a tragedy.”

With their backgrounds in social work and teaching, they could fit in right away and help the community, and they quickly felt at home as they got to know people.

After they arrived in West Virginia, Arnie taught social work at Mountain State University in Beckley for 15 years, and Kathy brought music back to the cash-strapped school district as an enthusiastic volunteer.

“We would have just rusted where we were,” says Arnie. “It wasn’t enough, wonderful as it was. Community still exists in West Virginia, and we didn’t feel alone down here. We’re happy.”

They still travel every summer to visit their children and grandkids, from Hawaii to California and then on to the East Coast. “Our kids are spread out — in a sense it’s wonderful, but in a sense it splits the family,” Kathy says. One of their sons has serious autism; the other four are independent, self-driven people. “They all do what they love; they are their own people.”

Love, laughter, and keeping things simple

There weren’t any fireworks when the couple met through a friend in 1971 — by all accounts it was a “hello-how-are-you” moment.
Arnie had been a Catholic priest and Kathy a nun, though they had both left their communities before they met each other. They were living in D.C. and looking for work. “It was an ordinary meeting, it was simple,” says Arnie. “And we had an ordinary courtship, which is nice in a way…no drama.”

“The thing that drew me to Arnie was his sense of humor,” Kathy recalls. “He made me laugh! He didn’t take himself or life too seriously. He was like Zorba the Greek — a big-hearted, generous soul, dancing through life in sorrow or joy. Who could not fall for such a guy!”

Headshot of Arnie Simonse

We would have just rusted where we were. It wasn’t enough, wonderful as it was. Community still exists in West Virginia, and we didn’t feel alone down here. We’re happy.

Arnie Simonse

They both say, matter-of-factly, that they are extremely close. “We’ve had an absolutely wonderful almost 50 years — our marriage has been fairly smooth sailing,” Arnie explains. “It’s not a big story…but it shouldn’t be a big story.”

In fact, they seem perplexed by a question about whether they think it’s important not to go to bed angry. “I’m not sure we’ve ever gotten angry,” Arnie says, raising one eyebrow in thought. “Sure, we have disagreements, but not arguments, just discussions.” He attributes that to his and Kathy’s parents. “Our parents didn’t argue. I never heard yelling, and Kathy was much the same. Our parents had good marriages as models for us.”

Have their kids followed in those footsteps too? Arnie laughs. “For our kids, it’s not the same. I’m not sure what I’d be like if I grew up in today’s world — it’s very different, more difficult and more stressful.”

Recipe for a long-term relationship

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So, what do they see as the ingredients for a happy, loving relationship?

“Well, we were independent before we met, and I think that’s the No. 1 criterion for a successful marriage — to grow up first,” says Arnie. “We had independent careers. I had been living in Rome for three years doing my doctorate in canon law, and Kathy had been teaching. I think it’s important to pick someone who is compatible in age, maturity, and independent spirit.”

The couple still live that independence in all aspects of their life together. Take Valentine’s Day: “We don’t need this special day to remind us of our relationship — that should be every day,” Arnie says, firmly. “Why not on Feb. 23, when it’s a miserable day in the winter? We should have a hundred Valentine’s Days, because it should happen spontaneously.”

The Simonses also say spirituality is another important anchor they share in life. They have always been involved in the Catholic Church, but “Kathy and I have a different way of looking at things,” Arnie says. “We believe in creation spirituality, that we are here not just for ourselves but to be kind and to help other people because we’re human — we’re connected to all of creation. This spirituality gives a sense of why we’re here and how we should live our lives.”

Touching hearts and making a positive difference in the community

As for today, they are both happy, running the Itmann Food Bank in Mullens, which serves 600 families a month. They organize food distribution but also try to boost clients by helping them grow vegetable gardens and raise chickens. They also work at the St. Vincent de Paul, and Kathy shares her love of music at church and the schools when they are open on site.

Headshot of Kathy Simonse

If our love has changed over the years, it has only deepened. From days raising a family to days teaching and working in a food bank, it’s all woven from the same cloth.

Kathy Simonse

“If our love has changed over the years, it has only deepened,” Kathy says. “From days raising a family to days teaching and working in a food bank, it’s all woven from the same cloth. To me, it seems that our daily experiences, no matter what they are, lead us to a fuller and deeper understanding of ourselves, each other, life, and love.”

Of course, practical challenges arise in any life and relationship, but Arnie and Kathy don’t let those slow them down. “There are problems such as age and illness when you’re living in a remote place,” Arnie says. “And the roads are not exactly built for old-timers, but now we go as fast as everybody else!”

“We’ve been very lucky — that’s the reality of it.”

The Inmann Food Bank can be reached at P.O. Box 713, Mullens, WV 25882.


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