Still in Step After 75 Years : Francos to Mark Diamond Anniversary as They Have Celebrated Life--on Dance Floor

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After Catherine and Franklin Franco exchanged wedding vows 75 years ago, they waltzed.

When the couple celebrate their diamond jubilee Thursday, they plan to fox trot and cha-cha.

For them, dancing is the secret to a long-lasting and happy marriage.

"We mainly do it for exercise to stay young," said Franklin Franco, 96. "And, I know of no other way of pleasing my wife."

The dancing duo began their partnership as teen-agers at weekend parties in New York, where they grew up. With a promenade and a couple of spins on the ballroom floor, Catherine and Franklin said they fell madly in love with each other.

"We're in our 90s now," said Catherine Franco, 94. "Thank goodness we can still dance."

Waltzing became a weekly ritual even before the Francos were married. But when they moved to Leisure World Laguna Hills 28 years ago, they joined three dance clubs so they also could rumba, tango and swing three nights a week. They still do.

Back in 1964, movie director David Lean was so impressed with the couple's moves that he hired them to dance in the ballroom scenes of "Doctor Zhivago."

At the time, the couple were living with daughter Winifred Catonigri in Spain, where part of the movie was being filmed. "It was wonderful," Catherine Franco recalled. "We were thrilled about dancing next to Omar Sharif and Julie Christie."

During the 1920s and '30s, the Francos were busy raising their five children, who now range in age from 52 to 73. One is an engineer, another is a real estate agent, yet another is a retired Navy commander, and two are college professors, the couple boast.

A television movie was made about the life in Australia of their engineer daughter, Vivian Clark, who has 15 children. The 1987 movie, "A Place to Call Home," starring Linda Lavin, depicted Clark's hardships and triumphs in raising her children, three of them adopted, by herself after her husband left her.

"We are so proud of all our kids," Catherine Franco said. "They've turned out so wonderfully. I'm so happy that I can't really explain my feelings."

Her husband attributes their children's success to their mother's devotion. "Never mind her dancing or anything else, she's always been a dedicated mother," the retired engineer said.

But their children are grateful for both of them. "They're super people, who are extremely loving and very supportive of everything we wanted to do in life," Catonigri said. "We think our parents are the best."

Catonigri, her two sisters and two brothers, the Francos' 23 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren converged on Leisure World for a special anniversary bash earlier this month, where Franklin and Catherine were the guests of honor. Their favorite song, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," was played, and it was no surprise to anyone to see the couple gracefully glide across the dance floor showing off their turns and bows in one of the retirement community's clubhouses.

Clark wrote a poem expressing the family's appreciation for her parents. An excerpt: "We love you for your attitude, your love of life and none elude, your generosity and your care, the warm and welcome ways you share."

On a recent afternoon, Franklin Franco held his wife's hand as the two watched a video of the party. "Look kid, we're dancing," he told her, pointing at the television set.

With the video playing, they laughed and spoke of some of their life experiences.

They remembered touring the United States with their children in tow, stopping at every historical site they could find in hopes of instilling pride and knowledge.

"We tried to educate them like that," Franklin Franco said.

The Francos also taught their children to dance, sing and enjoy operas.

They lived through the Great Depression and two world wars, and watched a man land on the moon. Through all their tribulations, they said they always had their song and room for a dance.

"As the years go by, we always draw closer," Catherine Franco said. "We changed with the times, but we adjusted because we love each other so much."

As for marriage, said Franklin Franco: "When I said I do, I do and I do and I still do. My wife is my shining light, and I say that truthfully from the bottom of my heart."

His wife blushed and added: "After 75 years . . . I wouldn't change my dance partner for anybody else in the whole world."

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