Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we sat down with Cathy and Ken Strum, Malden natives and high school sweethearts who have been married for close to half a century. With Valentine’s Day being observed on Monday, we asked them about the essence of love, what makes their marriage work and how they “spread the love” to society’s less fortunate people through volunteer service in various missions connected with their church, including Bread of Life in Malden, Give Kids The World and Habitat for Humanity. Cathy is a Christian educator at the Green Street Baptist Church in Melrose, where Ken is on the church’s Board of Missions. Cathy is a 1970 graduate of Malden High School. After high school, she began working for the City of Malden Public Schools in the cafeteria as an administrative assistant. She retired after 27 years. Ken was a route salesman for Wise Potato Chips for 25 years. The couple got married in July 1973 and will be observing their 49th anniversary this summer. They have two children: a son who lives in Peabody and a daughter who lives in Sandown, N.H., and who gave birth to twin sons. Cathy and Ken bought a 1950 one-level ranch home on Endicott Street in Saugus in 1996. Since becoming residents in town, they have been in many volunteer activities while continuing their church missions. They are both members on the town’s Council on Aging. They have worked for several years as poll workers; Cathy works as a clerk while Ken works as a warden. The couple credits a hard life growing up poor with alcoholic parents in a city project with their passion for helping people – all times of the year, not just during the holidays. Thanksgivings are pretty special at the Strum house: They invite 14 people for dinner, but before they eat, they must do volunteer work for Bread of Life, helping to make Thanksgiving Day a better day for less fortunate people. Highlights of this week’s interview follow:
Q: Tell me an interesting story, Cathy, about how you met and how you knew that Ken was the right guy.
Cathy: Well, he was quite comical. We grew up together, and he was a funny guy, and we used to have a lot of fun together with all of our friends. I can’t actually tell you when we started dating because we were with each other a lot and enjoying each other’s company. And all of a sudden – I can’t say the actual date – we just fell in love with each other. It hasn’t stopped til this day, 48 years later, so it’s kind of cool. So, we like to give back a lot to different people. We do a lot of mission work and spreading the love there and hoping that they appreciate it. And they absolutely do, because you can tell by their faces. And it’s been fun. Ken is on board. We think alike; we act alike; so we’re, like, made for each other. We’ve been told that by pastors.
Q: Ken, what drew you to Kathy?
Ken: I thought she was a cutie! We came from the same lifestyle growing up: poor neighborhood, alcoholic parents and stuff. She was just a down-to-earth person. And still to this day, we don’t say we love each other all of the time. But I know that we do. I’ve had the crises with my heart and my polio – which I’ve had since three months old. She never wavers from helping me when I need help. I get more in love with her every year. I love our life now. We’re not the richest; we’re not the poorest; but our lives are great.
Q: So your missions are an extension of your love?
Ken: Our missions are an extension of our love and giving people what we didn’t have. Back in the days, they didn’t have food pantries. And that’s how we feed people. At the Bread of Life, we not only feed people at Thanksgiving, but every month.
Q: How did you get involved with the Bread of Life?
Cathy: I heard about it and I checked it out. It’s always been my passion to spread the love and the kindness.
Ken: That’s with the church. That’s why I’m on the mission committee. We do things to help people. And one of our favorite missions that we love – we use our vacation time to go to Kissimmee, Florida, to “Give Kids The World” – where the “Make A Wish Kids” make a wish to go to Disney – stay at this village – they have 350 villas that the “wish” child stays in. Everything in the village is free. They can have ice cream at 8 o’clock in the morning. They can have frappes at 8 o’clock in the morning. They have golf carts, which we volunteer to take them around at night before we go to bed. They have milk and cookies. They have pizza deliveries. This is all for naught. They have handicapped vehicles that pick up the children. I drove a train that we could pick up the children with to bring them to dinner or lunch. You cry because you are so happy. These are kids with life-threatening illnesses.
Cathy: They have a Halloween and Christmas party every week because some of those children aren’t going to make it to the holidays.
Ken: Yes, it’s for some of those kids who aren’t going to survive.
Q: So, how did you get involved with “Give Kids The World”?
Cathy: Through our church.
Ken: We’ve gone three times. We’ve gone in October with the church – the 16 of us. Then we go by ourselves because we enjoy it so much.
It’s so giving for these kids who have never been on a ride. These kids are all handicapped. There’s horseback riding; these kids have never been horseback riding. And they are so grateful, they want you to come to their house. The parents cry because these kids aren’t second-class citizens now. They’re Number One. They get the biggest room in the villas. They get special animal characters that put them to bed at night. The love we feel for that – getting a child to be able to get something they never got before is huge.
Q: Is that your favorite mission?
Ken: That’s our favorite.
Ken: It’s by far the best, because of some of the feedback you get from the parents. I got a child to see Santa Claus because he came late – their flight was late, so they got there late. The dad was a Marine. When I got his child to see Santa, he cried.
Ken: You cry with happiness, but it’s so touching to see these kids and their parents who are so thankful for what they got. There were 16 of us who went, so we’re all doing this – making waffles with a face on it for them and cooking those. It’s endless what you can do for these kids. We give up our vacations so we can do this.
Q: This is one of the missions you have been involved with since coming to Saugus?
Q: What’s your favorite story from your volunteer service with “Give Kids The World”?
Cathy: The day I met John Stamos [the actor]. He’s a big contributor and always drops by to see the kids. One day I was dishing out ice cream for him, his bodyguards and his wife, who was pregnant. My friends from church were ogling him and taking pictures while I was working. Later that day, Ken told me he had seen John Stamos. I told him I got my picture with him.
Q: What about you, Ken?
Ken: I’m Facebook buddies with a “Make A Wish” child I met in Kissimmee, Fla. He was 16 when I met him back in 2019, and we share a birthday – the day after Valentine’s Day. I was born Feb. 15th, 1950. He’s had multiple heart attacks and multiple surgeries on his heart. He was hoping to live long enough to work at “Give Kids The World” because they’ve done so much for him.”
Q: So, please tell me, what do you love most about Saugus?
Cathy: I like that there’s not a lot of triple-deckers and stuff that makes it congested. I just like the quietness of my street. It’s almost like being out in the country; moving from where we were to here is almost like moving to the country, and I just love that. And nice people here.
Q: What brought you here was …
Ken: That reason. We wanted to get out of the city and get some place nice. We bought this little ranch [on Endicott Street].
Q: It’s small and looks like a toy house.
Ken: Yeah! Somebody said today that they had a garden that was 40 by 20 – that’s the size of my house. That was also because of my legs. As far as Saugus, we googled and did searches of crime. I went to the police station before we bought the house to find out what it’s like in this area that we’re coming to. It had good reports. And thankfully, we’ve met so many great people and got involved in the town in many different ways, where we never did in Malden. Saugus is a smaller community, but we really enjoy this. We’ve loved the Senior Center. That’s huge for us. And we have somewhere to go. It’s so great.
Cathy: We needed to have a ranch house because of Ken’s polio. We moved from the projects of Malden, where there was a lot of drug stuff going on, to a nice, quiet neighborhood. We weren’t at our new home for a month when the car got broken into and a CB radio was taken, but we’ve been fine ever since. We moved here for the quality of life, and it’s been very good for us.
Q: How are you going to celebrate Valentine’s Day?
Ken: The funny thing is, we really don’t. I don’t like chaotic. Valentine’s Day is chaotic, so we celebrate after Valentine’s Day: We go out to a Valentine’s dinner maybe a week after Valentine’s Day when things settle down. For one thing, the food is not as good because there are so many people going out, but afterwards we can sit by ourselves, enjoy the meal and have a good meal and just enjoy ourselves.
Q: What will you usually get Cathy for Valentine’s Day?
Ken: Well, that’s an awful question to ask. I give her my love.
Cathy: We’re not so big on that.
Q: Chocolates or roses?
Cathy: He’s never bought me flowers.
Ken: I don’t buy her flowers, but I bought her chocolates and stuff. But then, we try to watch our weight, and that ends. We have everything we need. It sounds like I’m being a tightwad or a cheapy, but I’m not. We have everything and everything we volunteer for, we both do it.
Q: Do you write poetry for her?
Ken: I’m terrible on that kind of stuff. I do not. What she stills talks about till this day – when we were younger – she said whenever we go somewhere, I always have to plan everything. So, I planned a two-week vacation for her and me. I found babysitters for the kids. I had everything done: tickets and places where we were staying. And I sent her a card to her work – I had our daughter give it to her – that invited her to go to dinner with me at the Olive Garden in Orlando, Florida, and then on a date at one of the clubs that were out there. We traveled to Key West, and all of that. Because I did all that for her without asking or telling – I set everything up – she remembers that to this day, which is awesome. You loved that.
Cathy: That was the best trip I ever had.
Ken: But we don’t have that soft, cushy “give you chocolates, give you valentines…”
Cathy: We’re just so good to each other, just every day.
Ken: The way I feel … when I had the open heart surgery, she took care of me. She did it without question. And when I go out on my scooter walking – we went to Breakheart, and I lost the power in the battery. She ended up pushing my scooter up the hill. When somebody is down, we take care of each other. I help her without question. That’s what love is.
Cathy: To me, gifts aren’t always meaningful. I’d rather have him be nice to me: do something nice to me like that instead of handing me a gift. I’m more sentimental about that part of life. Show me your love. Don’t give me a gift. Just show me your love. And that works for me.
Ken: And we never feel like throwing the other out. I thought about getting a divorce so I could marry her again.
Cathy: (laughs) Oh, he’s a character.
Ken: We just get along so well. We stayed in the house through the COVID and never had a fight.
Cathy: We did Quarantine Karaoke.
Q: I understand you went down together a couple of times – down to the southern part of the country – to help flooding victims.
Cathy: New Orleans – to help [Hurricane] Katrina victims. We went down with the church.
Ken: I did construction because of the many stories of contractors coming in and taking advantage of the people. We got to this house where the contractors got paid to put the porch back on the lady’s house and do some work on the inside where the gas and water meter were. The gas water heater was hanging. We had to repair everything in the back of her house and build another room because they took her money and left. She had no money left.
Her neighbor next door was 90. When she left her house, she asked the neighbor if she wanted to go and she said, “No, my son is coming.” But the storm got worse, and they found her floating up on the ceiling. People found their parents on the sidewalk where they just pushed all the trash from the houses. There were so many sad stories.
Cathy: But they still had a lot of love in their hearts. It was amazing. They sent me to the Senior Center to get some stories. And I was amazed. I told them, “You guys are great. You still have a lot of love for each other and a lot of good things happening there.”
Q: How many times have you been on trips like that?
Ken: We went down to help the Katrina victims in New Orleans twice.
Cathy: We went twice with the church and once on our own: three trips to New Orleans.
Ken: And we learned about Katrina and the Lower Ninth [Ward], where most of the destruction was. The people were so grateful that somebody came in to help out after the contractors took their money. To be without a home is so tough. They can’t come back. So, this just helped them.
We had many volunteers who went down there, but our part of it was, we worked hard, we did construction. And we would be debriefed at night as to what we got out of it: These people have a home again; this lady is not in danger because her gas water heater is hanging six inches above the floor by pipes.
I also worked in the kitchen, feeding mentally challenged people. I cooked for people in a shelter where they needed a lot of help.
Cathy: We also did Habitat for Humanity. We built three houses: one in Lowell, one in Lynn and one in Malden.
Ken: The person who is getting that house has to work with you, which makes them appreciate that house even more. And they can’t stop thanking you enough for helping them to build their home.
Q: Do you have a Valentine’s Day message to the people of Saugus?
Cathy: Just love one another. Just love one another and live every day, because you never know when the last day is going to be.
Ken: When I had the heart attack at 43, we started living life like there’s no tomorrow. We’re enjoying every day, because you never know when something like that [a heart attack] is going to happen. We enjoy our life now. If we run out of money, it is what it is. We’re going to enjoy every day until we don’t have any more days. When you have open heart surgery, you gotta live every day like there’s no tomorrow. It just has to be that way because you don’t know what’s coming.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share?
Cathy: No, I think we would just like to make everybody happy.
Ken: We grew up poor. Mine were abusive alcoholic parents.
Cathy: Mine left when we were young.
Ken: We’re trying to give the people stuff that we never got. The littlest things we can do for people, I enjoy.
Cathy: We just want them to share the positivity that runs through us. Our hearts are bigger than any Valentine’s gift you can get.