CHOCTAW â€” With tender care and devotion, high school sweethearts Bill and Shirley McConnell nurtured a crippled miniature horse to become a crowd-pleasing therapy animal.
Those who know them best said the pair bring that same level of commitment and devotion to everything they do, especially their 56-year marriage.
The key to their long-lasting love? Genuine friendship.
â€œWe're best friends,â€ Shirley McConnell said, smiling. â€œIn other words, if I weren't married to Bill, he would be somebody that I admire. You have to respect each other and love one another.â€
Kathy McConnell-Thomas, the couple's daughter, nominated her parents for the â€œmost inspiring coupleâ€ recognition. In her nomination letter, she said the pair have led a remarkable life built on a foundation of diligence and fortitude.
â€œBoth have a strong commitment to serve others, first to their families, then to our church and community,â€ she said.
Shirley McConnell said she and Bill met at Choctaw High School. She said both were student leaders and varsity basketball players.
The pair married in 1954 and had certain goals in mind from their start.
Shirley McConnell, 75, said she knew she wanted a career, and Bill didn't have a problem with that. Bill, a lifelong horse lover, wanted to raise horses and help out the community.
Shirley McConnell said they were both from good, hardworking families who taught them how to be self-sufficient.
â€œWe knew from day one we were going to have to make it on our own,â€ she said. â€œThat was OK, because we had a vision for what our life was going to be like, and we have pretty much hit the mark.â€
Bill McConnell, 77, became one of the original Oklahoma County Mounted Patrol deputies when the unit started. During his tenure, he received two commendations from the U.S. Secret Services for his service in providing security for two U.S. presidents, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, when they visited Oklahoma City. When a mounted unit was added to the Choctaw Police Department, then-Choctaw Police Chief John Whetsel (now Oklahoma County sheriff) asked McConnell to head that unit.
On April 19, 1995, Bill McConnell was headed to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation's headquarters when he was asked to assist mounted officers at the Oklahoma City bombing site. He worked 12-hour shifts every day for the first week. Bill McConnell served on the mounted unit until his retirement in 2004.
Shirley McConnell began her career at Oklahoma Federal Credit Union with a part-time auditor position in 1956. In 1967, she became the credit union's assistant manager, and in 1973, she became president and CEO of Mobil Oil Employees Federal Credit Union in Oklahoma City. She held that position until 1978 when Mobil Oil moved its Oklahoma City office to Dallas. Shirley McConnell returned to Oklahoma Federal Credit Union as president and CEO and held that position until retirement in 2003.
As a leader with the credit union, Shirley McConnell developed an apprenticeship program for youths in conjunction with the state Department of Vocational and Technical Education. In 1995, she was named Outstanding Business Leader of the Year by Gov. Frank Keating for her work in developing the youth apprenticeship program. In 1999, she was honored with the Byliner Award for Business by the Oklahoma City chapter of Women in Communications, and in 2000, she was honored as one of the Journal Record newspaper's Women Making a Difference in Oklahoma.
Partnership of caring
The McConnells said they maintained their marriage throughout their busy careers by sharing in many projects.
In 1988, they co-founded the Choctaw chapter of Crime Stoppers after the abduction of an 8-year-old Choctaw girl from a local elementary school.
Then there is perhaps their most unusual collaboration: Sunny.
The McConnells raised and showed several breeds of horses for years, including miniature horses.
Shirley McConnell said one of her miniature mares, Peaches, had a colt that was born with crippled front legs. She said they took the little horse to a veterinarian who told them that euthanizing the animal would be the humane thing to do because it would never be able to walk.
Shirley McConnell said she could not have the animal put down, and Bill McConnell said he agreed with her. The two sought another veterinarian to help and eventually found one who made two brace-like structures for the crippled colt.
Shirley McConnell said they named the miniature horse Sunny because he was destined to bring smiles to the faces of people who met him.
Today, Sunny is a 6-year-old certified therapy animal. The McConnells have taken him across the state to schools, retirement homes, hospitals and other locations.
Shirley McConnell said people, particularly children and the elderly, love to pet the horse, and Sunny likes to soak up all the attention.
They said the project has become a labor of love for them, because they like seeing the horse bring so much happiness to others.
The couple said their outreach trips with Sunny have come to a halt temporarily, but they hope to take her out on the road again.
Bill McConnell's health became a concern after he suffered a heart attack in 2007 and then battled with kidney cancer this year.
Ever resourceful, Shirley McConnell said the illnesses have only made the couple draw closer together in friendship and love.
â€œThis past year, we really had the opportunity to experience what â€˜in sickness and in health' means, but we wouldn't change anything about our life. We're best friends,â€ she said.
â€œWe were friends long before we fell in love.â€
Bill and Shirley McConnell are featured in the â€œOklahoma's Most Inspiring Couplesâ€ 2010 calendar, sponsored by the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. Couples featured in the calendar are being profiled in The Oklahoman's Life section each month. For more about the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative's inspiring couples, go to www.