It’s a milestone few couples will ever reach.
An incredible 75 years after their small wedding ceremony in the priest’s parlor of their neighborhood church, a long-frugal bride and groom went all out Saturday, in what Joe Ruppel, now 94, describes as “the first big party I’ve ever given for myself.”
In 1938, Ruppel married childhood friend Lucy Porrazzo in a no-frills ceremony at St. Ann Catholic Church on Ursulines Avenue in the 6th Ward.
“We didn’t have money at all at the time,” said Ruppel, who made $22 a month and spent $15 of it on rent.
Ten years later, the couple had two young daughters, Carolyn and Jane, and were basically building their own Metairie house from the ground up.
To cut expenses, Joe fixed the carpenters’ cars in exchange for their work. He dug the hole for the septic tank, did all the plumbing and served as the electrician’s helper. As he sanded the wood floors, Lucy ran behind him holding the electric sander’s cord in the air so that he wouldn’t run over it.
Lucy painted all the interior walls in pink and turquoise and other colors she called her “Fiesta walls” to match to her Fiesta dinnerware. They topped the modest house with a chimney bearing the letter R and have lived there ever since.
“We were both very frugal people; we never did spend much money,” Joe said.
Household duties were split. Lucy kept track of their finances, the house and their daughters.
“Bright and brilliant, she took care of everything,” Joe said.
Joe worked and worked and worked, often 10- to 12-hour days. And his efforts paid off, with the help of lightning-quick math skills, good fortune — what his grandchildren call “the Joe Ruppel luck” — and an uncanny sense of how to treat people well.
“I guess it’s coming up the hard way that made me have feeling for people,” he said.
As a result, the man who quit high school after six months so that he could work as a machinist’s apprentice ended up owning what’s now Boland Marine and Industrial LLC, a ship-repair and manufacturing company. He was actively involved and at the office every day until about a year ago, when he basically handed over the company to grandson Paul Simmons and began devoting himself full-time to the care of Lucy, who has been diagnosed with dementia.
While they were courting, he would pick up Lucy up at what was then the neighborhood all-girls school, John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue. Then he’d go to work the night shift at Dixie Manufacturing Uptown near the Mississippi River, where he was a machinist’s apprentice.
In 1941, after he completed his apprenticeship, he walked across the street to what was then Boland Machine and was hired for a 25-cents-an-hour machinist’s position running drill presses, lathes and planers.
After a few promotions, he became general manager of the company’s shipyard at the Industrial Canal and Florida Avenue, where his detailed grasp of even multimillion-dollar Navy jobs caught the eye of Boland owner J. Edgar Monroe.
In the late 1960s, during a rare extravagance — a trip to New York to mark Lucy’s birthday — he ran into Monroe walking down Fifth Avenue. Over cocktails, Monroe announced that he was going to sell the company to Joe Ruppel.
When time passed without any word, Lucy was convinced that the promised sale was “just the drinks talking.” But then Monroe tendered an offer and, in 1971, sold the company to an employee group led by Ruppel.
With Joe at the helm of Boland, the Ruppels traveled extensively. Every few years, the couple traveled to Italy, Norway, Sweden, Greece, Turkey and other countries with shipbuilding industries. They spent May and September every year in New York, where Joe courted the shipping industry during the day and saw bargain Broadway shows at night with his wife.
When their daughter Jane was diagnosed with the breast cancer that eventually killed her at age 46, he and Lucy flew to California together to care for her.
“She was always there with me,” he said.
And now, at age 92, his beloved Lucy is ailing. Always a slim 120 pounds, she has dropped to 105 in recent months.
On Friday, her sister Laura Nurdin helped Joe pick earrings to go with Lucy’s anniversary party dress while Lucy sat in crisp, pink-gingham pajamas and watched her husband. “I love him. Everything about him,” she said in a soft voice. “I just love him.”
“They were always the perfect couple,” Nurdin said. “They were fair to each other. Congenial. They discussed things. One didn’t do something without the other.”
Nurdin pointed upwards, toward the roof and the chimney with the R on it. To her mind, Joe and Lucy Ruppel built not only a house, but a wonderful life together, she said.