Take Note: Lydia and Gary Abdullah Tell Their Love Story

May 14, 2021

Image Description: Gary and Lydia Abdullah smile while standing in front of a Forum on Black Affairs backdrop.
Credit Courtesy Gary Abdullah

Lydia and Gary Abdullah are longtime State College residents who met at Penn State in the early 1970s. They talked with WPSU's Cheraine Stanford about the evolution of their relationship and what’s made their marriage work for more than four decades.

Here is the interview.

Cheraine Stanford 

Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Cheraine Stanford. On today's show, we're going to hear a love story. It's the love story of Gary and Lydia Abdullah: two State College community leaders who met when they were students at Penn State in the early 70s. During their more than 45 years of marriage, they've had to adjust to changes in social mores and learn to balance their work and personal lives. Both Gary and Lydia worked at Penn State -- Gary as a writer and editor in the College of Agricultural Sciences with a stint at WPSU-FM, and Lydia, who worked in finance and accounting, eventually retiring from Penn State as the first director of diversity and inclusion for the finance and business office. I spoke to them on Zoom from my home office.

Lydia and Gary, can you tell me how you first met?

Gary Abdullah 

You want my version or her version?

Cheraine Stanford 

Ooh, I want both.

Lydia Abdullah 

You give your version.

Gary Abdullah 

OK. I saw this very statuesque, very pretty young lady walking through East Halls up here at Penn State University. We had the same or, you know, common circle of friends. And so, we, you know, passed one another by. And so, we had one of those very special dances, you know, where we just struck up a conversation. And we've been together ever since.

Lydia Abdullah 

Well, it wasn't that easy. The way I remember us meeting, I was a freshman. Gary was here two years before me. So, in fall of ‘72, at that time, most of the Black students lived in East Halls. So that was the gathering spot. So, every day after dinner, a friend and I, we’d go up to East Halls, and then the study lounge. They’d be playing pinochle and braiding hair and just having fun. It was a safe place to be. And I initially met his brother. His brother was loud, and fun-loving guy, so you knew Froggy. But then they told me that he had a brother named Gary. So, I was waiting to see this “Gary.” And then one evening, he walked through the black study lounge, carrying his books with silk and wool pants on. Did you have a penny loafers on? A big, huge ‘fro, looking cute, looking sweet. And he paid me no mind for a long time. But when I went back home to my dorm that evening, I told my girlfriend, I said, “I'm gonna marry that man. That's who I'm going to marry.” And then and I stuck with it until I got his attention. And we started dating ’73. Yeah.

Gary Abdullah

Winter of ’73?

Lydia Abdullah

Yeah. And then we were married fall of ‘75. I made my mind up immediately. But it took a little bit to convince him that I was the one for him.

Gary Abdullah 

I was very studious is what it was. It wasn’t my fault.

Lydia Abdullah 

No, it was more a case of the very thing that drew me to him was he was quiet. He wasn't trying to make a scene. He wasn't trying to make a name for himself. And whereas all the other men in the room were trying to be seen and trying to strut, but uh, he was just quiet and cute.

Gary Abdullah 

Also, this was a different time at Penn State. I was with some officer with the Black Caucus and there was a whole lot going on. That's why she did not see me a whole lot there. You know, there was always a meeting to go to and stuff like that. But, you know, once I got the meetings out of the way, I saw the treasure.

Cheraine Stanford 

Gary, what did you see in Lydia that you thought, “Oh, she's special”?

Gary Abdullah 

I think my wife is in exemplary beauty, and has always been, and so she was when she was 17. And it was kind of hard to miss her. The funny thing about the process was that when people found out that we were boyfriend and girlfriend, they looked at me in utter shock. Like, “Wait a minute. You go with her?” You know it, it was a classic, you know, out kicking your coverage, you know, you know, aspiring to higher. She was a well-known beauty on campus.

Cheraine Stanford 

Wow.

Cheraine Stanford 

So, Lydia, I'll ask you just if you wanted to even say more. What first attracted you to Gary?

Lydia Abdullah 

His intellect. Although he wasn't real consistent about going to class and whatnot, he was smart. I made the mistake of taking a class with him. And I was very diligent, you know. I went to class, I took notes, I studied. He will show up every once in a while. OK, look at my notes. He gets the A out of the class. You know, this is what he is.

Gary Abdullah

This is 40 years later. This is 50 years later!

Lydia Abdullah

But he, he could have, you know, he's always been knowledgeable about things, you know. He was like a walking encyclopedia. And so, it was always good to have conversations with him. And, and it was more not the frivolous stuff that people are, were really into.

Gary Abdullah 

Once we started going together, we disappeared from campus. You know how Friday night everybody looked around, “OK, who made this party? Who made that party?” We stopped making the parties because I had, I mean, we were having a wonderful time just together. Let’s put it that way.

Lydia Abdullah 

It was easy for us to be a couple together, you know? And we really didn't need anybody else. You know, we did a few times, but we preferred it just the two of us.

Cheraine Stanford 

So how, how would you both say marriage has been different than maybe you thought it would be?

Lydia Abdullah 

Hmm. When I think about my parents’ marriage, which was over 50 something years, they had a good marriage. They both worked hard, didn't play much. Because they worked hard, you know, all the time. So, in trying to use that as an example, but yet, at the same time, we realized, as we were so integrated into our church work, that it was more than just work, you know, that there was space for other things in our lives. So it wasn't a 60s comedy. You know, it wasn't a 70s love story movie. But we, because we were compatible, I think we learned how to mesh out the rough spots.

Gary Abdullah 

And also, I think a lot of it had to do with Christian teachings, you know. I did, I had never seen a good marriage. I had never seen a marriage, you know? My mother and father were not together for very long at all. And so, I didn't have the day-to-day examples of, “OK, this is what daddy does.” You know, “This is what the wife…” You know, and all that sort of thing, which is good, because I didn't come in with a whole lot of preconceptions. But I also just didn't have conceptions. And so, it was the teaching, you know, in terms of explanation of husband of one wife, two have come together and meet up, leave and cleave, those kinds of things that give you concept. Because otherwise, all you have is example, and that can be all over the board. You know, I mean, that could be crazy.

Cheraine Stanford

What do you think are some of the things that made your marriage a success?

Gary Abdullah

She's a good woman. She's a good person. You know, I think that's really important. And she wants to be here, you know, she wants to be married to me. And that's, that's really very important because everybody gets bombarded with so many crazy messages about, “OK, if you get rid of him, then you can go out and do this.” And, you know, many of them are explicit a lot, most of them are implicit. But to be married, you have to make a lot of day-to-day decisions and choices to do the right thing for the marriage. And so, she's a good person, and she makes the right choices.

Lydia Abdullah 

I really think I was blessed to find a man where ego wasn’t an issue. No, and always willing to differ, and always willing to be at peace. He's a peaceful man, you know, and those are critical things. He despite not having a traditional family unit growing up, he learned somewhere, somehow to be good to people, to be tender-hearted, to be sincere, and that's never really left him. If anything, it's grown. He has a nickname around town as Uncle Gary, and that comes from that heart that's willing to give.

Cheraine Stanford

What are some challenges that you've experienced, and how did you get through them together?

Lydia Abdullah

I really think work-life balance was a big issue. And you know, there's a seance that I think all couples are going to go through with that because you gotta make it. There was loans and there were bills. And so, you got to work. And both of us have had challenging work situations, often my work caused me to work overtime. And then for season, he was doing shift work, he had that third shift. And that late-in-the-night thing did not work because we had one, at least one child then and, you know, for him not to be around. And then he had another job where he was on call, and this back in the day…

Gary Abdullah 

At a local radio station that will remain nameless.

Lydia Abdullah 

He had his back in the day where they had to wear those beepers. And when that thing would go off, and because he was low man on the totem pole, he would have to work Christmas, Christmas Eve. And they have to go shovel out the satellite in bad weather. So, learning to be forgiving in those situations, I think that was really, really hard. You know, I was not expecting that, I definitely didn't like it. But yet on the other hand, we had good teaching about how to talk to one another, and to not go to sleep on your anger, you know, and not to let it perpetuate it because it would grow out of control. But that was that. That was a big challenge for me, just our work life balance. And then both of us being involved in the church, and he is a musician. So, there were times where, you know, he could have two or three rehearsals in one week. And I'm like, ‘Ah!’, you know, ‘I want to see you.’ But he was always good about taking care of business, whether it was watching the kids, he's always ready and available, going the extra mile to take care of things around the house and put up with me.

Gary Abdullah 

Just the general challenges of life are really very powerful and pulling your marriage apart when neither one of you is making a lot of money, the pressures and the craziness on that -- I mean it, you know, it can just it can distort personalities and make you make bad choices and that sort of thing. I think another thing that really has happened for us is we got married in ’75, and then women's Lib came in and there were a lot of social changes that, in a lot of ways, made the marriage that we entered into different from what you’ve lived with. And so, I think that's something that people don't consider is marriage really has changed over time. And you know, the deal you may be going in, especially, you know, for a lot of couples who got married, you know -- if you got married in the ‘60s, that deal, that contract, will not apply. I mean, it's a bad deal, and so much has changed around it that it is kind of crazy. And so, as you look at, “How do you keep your marriage together?”, you got to be ready to change, you got to be ready to negotiate. One of the things that really stands out for me is that just in our employment situations, I came to appreciate her for being who she was. She had many opportunities and was valued for her skills and for her personality and for her just presence and that sort of thing. And as a man, you have to realize, “I have an exemplary wife,” and you can't take that as, “Raising her up pushes me down.” She's allowed to be exemplary. It's a good thing. But you got to mature into that. You got to negotiate that.

Lydia Abdullah 

That's not what the world is telling you. As he was talking, Cheraine, I think one important thing that came to mind was, as we age, particularly just physical challenges, you know, getting over those hurdles of, “Oh, my body's not what it used to be. Will he still loved me?”, and the games that your head will play. I think we are learning to navigate that and not put more on each other than we can bear and be accepting of the reality that we're not the teenagers we were when we first met, you know. And that's another way I think I'm truly blessed because, you know, he doesn't get puffed up and crazy. And, you know, ‘This is OK. This will pass. It's all right.’

Gary Abdullah 

Yeah. And that's part of life. You know. When you're married, there is possible for me to break my leg and to be hobbled for six months, and she can't get mad that I'm not the real basketball playing guy that she married, you know, she might get sick. You know, that's just life. Stuff happens. And a lot of it is being prepared and mature enough to say, “OK, this is happening now, but it won't always happen.” Now, another important aspect is that I really like the 40-year-old Lydia as much as I like the 18-year-old Lydia, you know.

Lydia Abdullah 

And he likes the 65-year-old one, too.

Gary Abdullah 

I think she's hot. It's important, you know.

Cheraine Stanford 

That is important. So, you talked a little bit about this. Is there a particular way that you both deal with conflict to get through it, and how did you learn to do that?

Lydia Abdullah 

Teachings we received in the church helped us an awful lot. We learn to not hide from the things that we were feeling or going through into the make an effort to talk about it. And if we couldn't handle it ourselves, get some help, you know? Seek out wisdom on how to do it. That made a difference.

Gary Abdullah 

And I think a big part of that you mentioned, you know, the teachings in your church, but the aspect of church community, you know. She has women friends that she can talk to because we are still very, very different people. I have a way of dealing with conflict that is very different from her style and tendencies and dealing with conflict or pressure and all that sort of thing. But if you have community around you, it's not just me versus her. It takes a village. It takes a village to raise the kids. It takes a village to maintain the marriage, you know. If I don't have some guys that I can go to and say, “Aw, man. She’s getting on my last nerve,” you know, and have people who are around me who have sense enough to say, “That's as good as you…you better calm down. She's getting on your nerves. But guess what you're doing?” You need people to give you that kind of feedback. But if it's just you, and just your perceptions, then you can make up all kinds of solutions.

Lydia Abdullah 

Right, it takes me back to an incident where we were working on something together. I don’t even remember the particulars. But he turned to me and said, “Lydia, I don't work for you.” So I had to come to the realization that the way I do things at work wasn't the way you do at home, you know. But for him to be able to see it, clarify it and communicate it to me without making me feel like junk, it was important, you know. But it was a revelation, that what I did for nine, 10 hours in Old Main is not what I do when I come to my home.

Cheraine Stanford 

Yeah, that's, that's important.

Lydia Abdullah 

Yeah, it is, and sometimes difficult to separate. Firstly, because some days, you're spending more time at work, then you are home. And so those ways become, you know, a part of who you are. But it takes not only teaching but also a realization. No, they are not gonna roll my home, and I can adjust. That doesn't have to be who I am. It's a tool I can use at work, but that's not who I am. And one of my gifts from the Lord is administration, so I don't want to negate how God has made me. But you got to know how to use it.

Gary Abdullah 

And you have matured into that, you know…the 18-year-old Lydia was not a boss. That 18-year-old Lydia…

Lydia Abdullah 

Oh, something’s different with you.

Gary Abdullah 

But you know, the, the 45-year-old Lydia was a good administrator, which means that you had to be a good director. And so, you mature into a lot of your characteristics. And it's important to be able to separate, “Yes, I'm good at directing people at work. But I can't direct my husband.”

Lydia Abdullah 

Exactly. I might want to live with him the rest of my life. Had he been the type of person who was such a ball of fire and wouldn't have been able to articulate that I might not have ever heard it. Now, could I do it automatically? Probably not. But it was a core principle that I had to live by and pass on to others, especially knowing my nature is to direct.

Cheraine Stanford 

If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Cheraine Stanford. Our guests are Lydia and Gary Abdullah, longtime State College residents who've been married for more than four decades. Tell me how many children you have and how having kids changed your marriage.

Gary Abdullah 

We've got two kids. One is almost…is 39. And the other is 35. Right now.

Lydia Abdullah

So, we have a son and a daughter. I had difficulties conceiving with both of them so...The patience he had in putting up with my meltdowns. When month after month, I'm not pregnant. And our first child, my son, he came to in a season where all our peers was spitting out babies. You know, they could bat their eye and they were pregnant. Well, that wasn't helping me. But he was never judgmental, never cruel. And it was God's timing. The change, I think, in the relationship was a good change, because there are just natural, paternal instincts in him that just came out and flourished. He was the one that you could always get the crying baby to. And they settle down. And it wasn't just his voice.

Gary Abdullah

Deep voices help. Settle down.

Lydia Abdullah 

And so, in ways as having children, I think, adds it to our lives. It was difficult because we didn't always have money in those early days, and by a struggle financially. But it was a good change. It allowed different things in us to flourish.

Gary Abdullah  

And it was another example of the toils of life. Whatever income you have before having two kids, it's going to change after having two kids, you know, and you just have to learn how to flow it in and adapt to it. And we also, the kids help us to approach you know, because we approach things differently. She was watching other people have children and saying, “It's not going as smoothly for me as for them.” And my perspective is, kids are forever, you know, this is not a competition. This is not a, you know, competitive event. It's, whenever we get them, the process is a whole lot bigger than, “It's time to have kids, it's time to have kids.” And that's a case of, you know, the, the pressures from the outside world coming in, and us being supportive of one another and saying, “Yeah, we didn't get it this month. But, you know, we're still married.” That's one of the things that we tell each other. We’re going to be married for a long time. And so, when you look at short-term problems, but when you put them up against the long-term goal, you know, the problems get a whole lot smaller. Whereas if you just looking at a problem, it's like, “Ah!” You know, you can kind of freak out.

Cheraine Stanford 

What's something that you wish people knew about marriage that you don't hear people talk about enough?

Lydia Abdullah 

I don't think I hear enough wisdom about the sacrifice involved. You must change and adapt. You cannot be the Lydia -- and I was married at age 20. I cannot be that same woman for 45 years and have a successful marriage. I have to become less selfish. You have to learn to give more and not expect anything back. I mean, the issue of sacrifice, you don't hear it, you don't see it. But it's so needful, and sacrifice doesn't take away from you. It builds up goodness, it creates positive atmospheres, you know, so I really wish there was more being said about the benefits of sacrifice, when it comes to marriage. You don't lose anything.

Gary Abdullah 

And the benefits of marriage as a whole. Again, all we have when we talk about “what is a marriage?” is the stuff you see on TV and what you can observe from your parents where 75% of their interactions, you as a little kid, you don't even you don't even perceive them. And so, you don't…On the outside, you really don't know what it's like on the inside. There is so much about marriage that, if you don't get good teaching, you’re probably gonna mess it up. One of my perceptions about marriage is that the sum of the whole is much greater than the individual parts that go into it. Over 45 years, what we have created together is much greater than my portion of what I could have done by myself. And that's really what marriage is. One of the things that I tell young guys in particular is, “You’re all right now, but you will really blossom, you will really burgeon, you will really develop when you get married and then have a family that you can sew into and receive from.” That’s when you're going to really make a difference. You think you’re hot stuff now. And, you know, but you know you haven't seen what you're going to be.

Lydia Abdullah 

I think of this pandemic we're going through, and I don't think I'd make it if I wasn't married, you know. To have that safe and secure place in him at the end of every day…It gives me the strength I need to make it through the mess, you know? And I think COVID has just made that even more real because I couldn't understand you people say, “Uh, how are you handling being stuck up in the house with your mate?” We’re loving it.

Gary Abdullah 

This is like 1975 all over again.

Lydia Abdullah 

You know, crank up the music. You know, don't answer the phone. So, but it's because I think we're at a point where the love we have for one another…It's not tolerating one another, you know, it's, it's fitting together. And you know, we have the advantage of having a home where if he needs some time watching basketball, and I don't feel like watching basketball, it's fine. I can stay in my room and do what I want to do. And as a result, it tends to make me pray even harder for those who want to be married and aren't yet.

Cheraine Stanford 

Lydia, what's something that you want Gary to know that maybe you don't tell him enough? And Gary, what's something that you want Lydia to know that maybe you don't tell her enough?

Lydia Abdullah 

Well, I'm not sure if it's something I don't say enough but can always say more of, is that he is, and always has been, all the man I've needed. You know, I’ve never been tempted to look anywhere else, you know, because he's…he meets my emotional and physical and mental needs. Totally. And he has. Always.

Gary Abdullah 

I know what I want to say, and it is a concept that I want her to know that she's better than she thinks that she is. And women in particular, I think, wrestle with a lot of issues around insufficiency, inadequacy, just questioning themselves. And she's a bad chick. But you lose some of the front of being a bad chick if you don't know you're a bad chick. And I would need her to know she’s more than she thinks that she is.

Cheraine Stanford 

We've been talking with Lydia and Gary Abdullah, longtime State College residents who met as students at Penn State in the early 70s and who've been married for more than four decades. Hear more Take Note interviews on our website at wpsu.org/TakeNote. I'm Cheraine Stanford, WPSU.