Marriage stronger through success, tragedy, politics

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published February 14, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 13, 2013 at 3:22 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Benton Mayor David Mattingly and his wife, Nancy, have been married almost 53 years. Both were born in 1941 and have been on quite a journey together.

There is a term — storybook romance — that is often used to describe a marriage that lasts. However, storybooks are usually fantasy.

Perhaps lasting marriages are more like novels, where the characters go on long journeys over time. As the chapters follow, one after another, the characters experience triumphs and endure tragedies. Together, they grow stronger and change, often with unexpected results.

David Mattingly, the mayor of Benton, and his wife, Nancy, have been creating their own story during almost 53 years of marriage. It is a story of optimistic young love and riding a golden time of success in America, but also of finding a way to make it through a heartbreaking loss that scars the soul.

“I learned that you have to compromise with what life brings you,” Nancy Mattingly said at her home in Benton. “You cannot be unwilling to deal with what happens. I have been extremely proud of what David has done. He picks the right thing to do, and often that is not the easy thing.”

Yet, her husband said Nancy is often the strong one.

“All these years with job and children issues, it is has been a hell of a journey, and she is to be commended,” David said. “She is a strong-willed person, but she has always found a way to be compatible with everything and everyone.”

Both were born in 1941, David in Indiana and Nancy in Kansas, in the months before America entered the Second World War. In 1959, David’s family moved to Raytown, Mo., near Kansas City, and he graduated from high school.

“My only thought about going to college was to play basketball, not to have the advantages that education would give me,” he said. “My father wanted to get me on with Western Electric, where he worked, but you could not be hired for manufacturing or industrial jobs until you were 18, and I was 17 when I graduated.”

However, as if it was planned for him, the state of Missouri started a program allowing 17-year-old high school graduates to work in light industry, and the plant where his father worked would be the pilot program.

“My father said I should get down to the plant and apply,” David said. “A couple of days later, I was running a punch press in a non-air-conditioned metal building for $1.59 an hour.”

Meanwhile, working at the plant’s assembly line (where their was air conditioning, as David pointed out), was Nancy Dugan, who had turned 18 in August.

At the plant’s cafeteria, the couple met.

“She was and always has been attractive,” David said. “ A room is always better looking when she is in it. I found her interesting, but I think she thought I was a little flirt.”

“A flirt,” Nancy said. “Yes, and he still is, in a way.

“I had seen this good-looking guy around there, and one time I threw something into a trash can in the break room, and he said something about me making a good throw, and we got to talking.”

Both of the young people said they liked the strength they found in the other one.

“I found that David was a strong-willed person,” Nancy said. “I could not manipulate him like I had run over some others. I thought, ‘This is someone strong who stands up for himself. That is someone I need.’”

David’s reaction was much the same.

“She created a challenge for me,” he said. “It was hard for me to understand. She used a soft touch with things, but she was just as strong and willful as I was.”

Although both had plans for college, they were married in April 1960, six months after they met. David said they felt it was the right thing to do, and they married without a lot of thought about the future or the struggles ahead.

“I wanted to go to college, but for a woman, that was still the exception, not the rule in those times,” Nancy said.

Meanwhile, David was working his way up at Western Electric, and he started college in 1967, but it would be a long road to a degree.

“It took five universities and four states to get me through school,” David said, laughing, in an earlier interview.

He got a college degree in 1979 from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

The couple had four children in eight years, and Nancy was a stay-at-home mom, while David advanced his career with jobs in Denver, Chicago, then Little Rock.

“I never questioned the moves; it was David’s career,” Nancy said.

Both parents believe the moves were good for their children, Lance, Scott, Traci and Jeff. They said going to new places allowed the children to have a greater perspective on life and to make friends easily.

The family came to Arkansas from Chicago, and both remember the children remarking on the size of Little Rock compared to Chicago. But the Mattinglys settled in Benton because of its schools.

“We had a friend who lived in the area, and we liked the school system,” David said. “We are still proud of the school system.”

Then one day, their lives changed forever.

“Jeff went over to a friend’s house, and the friend wanted to show him his deer rifle,” David said. “He didn’t know it was loaded, and Jeff was shot in the chest and killed. He was 12. Life has never been the same.”

David said losing Jeff was worse for Nancy than it was for him.

“Jeff was very close to his mom. I could focus on my career and taking care of everyone else, but for two years, I was not sure what was going to happen to her.”

“It was traumatic and devastating,” Nancy said. “It is like living a life sentence for all of us. He was my baby.

“I was so proud of David. He was there to protect us, so he blamed himself. His hair turned white overnight. It was terrible for the whole family.”

Nancy said David wanted to create a scholarship in honor of their son.

“With the help of many others, we formed the scholarship and then a foundation for Jeff,” Nancy said. “The first scholarship was given to a Benton High School student in 1980, and by now, we have given out some 30 of them. Last year, there were two $2,000 scholarships for academic achievement and leadership.”

Like David, Nancy found something on which she could focus her attention. She went to college.

“She needed to get back into that A-student mode again,” David said of his wife.

She completed her degree and taught English in the Bryant School District for 20 years. Nancy called her career rewarding.

David got involved in government when he was elected a Saline County justice of the peace in 1987, and he served three terms. He became a business consultant and retired again.

Finally, David said, he and Nancy both retired and had time for each other at home, but soon the page turned to a new surprise chapter in their story.

Her was asked to run for mayor of Benton.

“I was not in favor of it, and I thought he had decided not to run,” Nancy said. “But people kept asking him. I finally said, ‘If you lose, you are strong enough to take it, so run.’”

David was elected in a runoff and has focused on economic development and education within the city.

“I am extremely proud of what he has done,” Nancy said. “He is a consensus builder, always listening to other’s ideas and letting them get involved.”

Asked about her approach to their marriage, Nancy said it is to stand by her man.

“It is always working together. Sometimes it’s 50/50, and sometimes it is 75/25, but once a decision was made, we always backed up the other one.”

David also mentioned their agreement to always support each other. However, he added that giving flowers also helped heal many mistakes a man could make in a marriage.

During the interview with Nancy, David waited in the house — with flowers as an early Valentine’s Day gift.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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