In Nancy Appleby, Jack Gatewood had found the apple of his eye. Of that, he had no doubt.

But making it permanent would have to wait. There were the Japanese to deal with first.

With World War II raging in the Pacific, the recent high school graduate volunteered for the Navy, thus beginning a two-year stint of service to his country.

In the end, though, Jack came home to stay, and he and his high school sweetheart were married.

Two weeks ago, 68 years after their exchange of vows — and within just a few hours of each other — Jack and Nancy Gatewood died, she on Jan. 15, he the following morning.

The longtime Tulsans were both 88, Jack the elder by seven months.

Nancy, dealing with complications from a broken hip and pneumonia, had been hospitalized for the last few weeks, family members say. It was the first time since WWII the couple had spent any significant time apart, and it was especially hard on Jack.

“People at his assisted living facility would find him wandering around, asking if anyone had seen her,” said his son, Jack Gatewood II. “They would tell him where she was. But he had dementia and just couldn’t hold onto the thought.”

Jack never learned of Nancy’s death. He died a few hours later, just before family members could break the news.

Cardiac arrest was the listed cause. For the family, though, that doesn’t get to the real heart of it.

“We believe it was a broken heart,” Jack II said. “I know that’s old-fashioned to say, that it doesn’t hold up medically. But she had been gone from his life, and we believe he was grieving for her.”

The widowhood effect

Geriatrician Dr. John Carment, an assistant professor of geriatrics at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine, has seen longtime couples die closely together.

“It happens often enough in fact, that it’s been studied and even given a name: the widowhood effect.”

Not only do bereaved spouses face a higher risk of dying, studies have shown, but it increases more than 60 percent in the first three months after their loss, Carment said.

In this case, Jack didn’t know of Nancy’s death; but her sudden absence from his life the last few weeks might have had the same effect.

No single cause for the widowhood effect has been found, Carment added. But the stress of grief, especially where chronic diseases are present, probably contributes.

“If you’re very frail, and have other health issues, it doesn’t take much stress to put you over the edge,” Carment said.

He said studies have also shown that men are more likely than women to die after the loss of their spouse.

High school sweethearts

Jack and Nancy Gatewood met as high school students in Ash Grove, Missouri.

Already, it seemed a higher power was at work, bent on bringing them together: Ash Grove was Nancy’s hometown. But Jack was living in nearby Everton, and would only transfer to Ash Grove after his own high school burned to the ground.

Once there, it didn’t take long. Jack and Nancy began dating that same year as juniors. He played basketball, she was a cheerleader.

The relationship would have to endure a big interruption. Serious about doing his part in the war, Jack tried to enlist when he turned 18; he was told to finish school first.

So, the day after he graduated in 1944, he joined the Navy.

Shipping off for the Pacific, where he drove beach landing crafts, Jack had to grow up fast.

He was part of the invasion of Iwo Jima, where he would later witness the iconic flag-raising.

But at last, with his service concluding, he and Nancy were able to marry — on April 27, 1946.

They settled in Tulsa and began their life together. Jack went into life insurance, enjoying a long career with Northwestern Mutual Life. Nancy was a homemaker.

Together, they raised four sons.

The front door to the Gatewood’s midtown home, where they lived 47 years, testified proudly to the importance of family. The Tulsa World wrote about it once: Made after the kids were grown, the door was carved from oak with symbols on it representing each son. Jack II, for example, as a pastor, is depicted by a dove.

Jack II, who serves with a church in Keller, Texas, said his parents never talked specifically about how to have a successful marriage. But you could learn just from observing them, he added.

“We never saw them argue until later in life, when dealing with some memory issues,” he said. “Throughout their life together, they gave in an awful lot to each other. They were just very together in whatever they did.”

Even, it turns out, in dying.

“It’s hard,” Jack II added, “but we are pleased for them — that they could go together. For us, it’s a sign of God’s grace. We can rejoice in that.”

The Gatewoods are survived by their sons, Jack Gatewood II, Brad Gatewood, Todd Gatewood and Marc Gatewood; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. A service was held Jan. 19 at Memorial Baptist Church, the couple’s longtime church, under direction of Ninde Brookside Funeral Home.

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Tim Stanley 918-581-8385

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