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Love and laughs, 51 years later

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Donna and Steve Palmer

A LASTING LOVE Bellaire High School sweethearts Donna and Steve Palmer share a mutual respect for what each has brought to nearly 51 years of marriage. Included in that? Lots of laughter. (Photo:

The memory evokes a wild roar of a laugh, the kind that simmers as a giggle, erupting into full-blown howls. Bellaire High School sweethearts Steve and Donna Palmer, just a few years married at the time, had accepted a neighbor couple’s invitation to a marriage retreat.

“We really had no idea what it was, but our neighbors, older than us, had just come from one,” recalls Donna, whose buoyant energy fizzes from her like bubbles on a soda. “They said it makes good marriages even better and we would absolutely love it. We were game to try anything fun and thought it sounded like a great weekend getaway!”

Once there, husbands and wives were corralled into separate rooms, unable to communicate, then asked to write in a notebook, with this prompt: What is your biggest problem together and how do you solve it? Attending couples were to be herded together at exercise’s end. 

Time to share.

Steve sat with blank pages, nothing to write. He seriously longed to retreat from the marriage retreat. Um, what are we doing here!? 

“This was more about marriages that were in trouble. We didn’t understand what it was about,” he says. His marriage was fine. Way better than fine. 

“We’re like, ‘What can we make up?’” says Donna whose notebook was blank, too, save a few doodles. They slinked out the back door, never to return, giggles and snorts their only takeaway. “Just the hilarity of us being there… I mean, we didn’t know what we were getting into!” Donna says, laughing.

Donna Palmer, Steve Palmer

Happiness and hugs during the University of Oklahoma ZBT fraternity formal.

The couple celebrates 51 years of marriage on May 20. When they feel an urge to write about each other, it’s likely in the form of a love note. Voluminous romantic missives and mementoes have been preserved through the decades. “I’ve kept every card and letter he’s ever written to me. The house might look neat, but don’t open the drawers!” 

Their playful banter tells all:

“What is it you always tell me when we are out together? I know it isn’t true, but it’s so sweet that you always say it.”

“That you’re the prettiest girl in the room.” 

“And I know I’m not. But Steve is so sweet. So so sweet.”

“It’s the medicines.”

“We never stop laughing,” Donna says. “But no marriage is perfect. I don’t want to give that impression. That doesn’t exist.”

Through the rumbles and bumbles of life, good times and bad, their bond instinctively defaults to its original factory setting: Love. Respect. Laughter. 

They never take their marriage for granted.

She and Steve grew up watching June and Ward Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver, the happy suburban parents of the 1950s who made marriage look like pure bliss without effort. “Steve and mine’s parents had strong marriages, too,” she explains. 

So, it rocked them to their core when a couple, about 15 years their senior – “total role models to us, affectionate, loving” – suddenly announced plans to divorce.

“We were in our late 20s, and it inadvertently caused us to hold each other a bit tighter and planted seeds that probably helped us to not take our marriage for granted,” Donna explains. 

Those seeds have cultivated respect and admiration for what each brings to the union.

“We have passions that we share together. But we also love that each of us brings separate passions to the marriage. Steve loves that I love to have fun with my girlfriends, and I love that Steve loves to play golf with the guys. It’s so healthy,” says Donna, 71, born a day apart from Steve, 72. August-born Leos. 

“Strong, strong, strong personalities,” she says, “but not in confrontational ways. It just works.”

She stresses the importance of couples taking time for fun, spontaneous getaways. Parenthood doesn’t have to be where romance goes to die. At least four times a year, Steve whisked her away for a weekend getaway when they became parents. “You must remember life before kids and make it about each other. It’s not always easy to do,” stresses Donna.

And pick your battles. 

“Those marriages where there’s petty bickering back and forth? I can’t stand being around that, and neither can Steve. He always brings up that saying Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” she says of the classic book. “We have to remember that we don’t always see things the same way.” 

She laughs at a long-ago note she wrote to Steve, on his 19th birthday, recently posted to Facebook: “Well, here we are, another year has gone by and it’s birthday time again. We’ve been through a lot together, both good times and bad times, and all these times only seem to bring us closer together. Have a wonderful 19th year and always remember that I love you.”

She posted it for its comedy. “No real bad times to be had at 19! We didn’t know what bad times were!”

But a reply to the post from school friend April Sherman Hiller reveals just how hopelessly smitten Steve was: “I knew junior year in high school he was going to marry you! Steve and I were in Spanish class, and you walked by. He leaned over and whispered to me, ‘I am going to marry her.’” 

In a follow-up conversation with Donna recently, April confides, “I thought he was totally crazy because he said it with such conviction!”

Donna Palmer, Steve Palmer

Donna and Steve’s wedding day in Austin, May 20, 1973.

Yes, the chemistry ignited in high school, but they met as middle-schoolers, the age of armpit farts, changing bodies, and searching for your identity. At Johnston Junior High.

“This is how far we go back,” says Donna. “I looked at him at the pool one day and went ‘Aghh! You’ve got a hair on your chest!’ How’s that for a visual!” 

And another visual: Steve, in his first after-school job at Burger King, getting off work and making a beeline to Donna’s house. “The third night of this, Donna said ‘You know, you smell like a hamburger,’” he recalls.

Faster than you can say Whopper with cheese, he quit to take another job. 

It’s the same Steve that burned up the road between Norman, Okla. and Austin “pretty much every weekend,” during college years. He was a business major at The University of Oklahoma, Donna at The University of Texas, on her path to becoming a teacher. He transferred to UT.

“Ran out of money for gas,” he says, chuckling. 

It’s also the same Steve that couldn’t bear being apart when Donna took a summer counselor job at North Carolina’s Blue Star Camps. “Between camp sessions one and two, the counselors had a three-day break,” she explains. “I’m sitting outside and suddenly, I see this car driving down the road, leading to the camp. Without telling me, Steve got a job there, too.”

“That’s Steve. He was part of us, is part of us,” says Donna’s sister, Susan Magaziner. “He’s been in the family basically since I was a little kid. He was over every weekend, and every day after school. He was always part of our life.

“They still call each other cute,” she continues. “Donna will say, ‘Oh he’s so cute!’ and Steve says to me all the time, ‘Boy, that sister of yours…’ I mean, after 50 years of marriage and a thousand years of dating, they’re very, very happy! I think they know they have a gift that’s not that common. Just look at the divorce rate in today’s world.” 

“My sister Susie is like a sister to him,” says Donna. “And my brother Mark was 4 when we started dating. He thinks of him as a brother. And we lost Dad early, so I think he also thinks of him as a father figure. I have a picture of Steve holding my brother when he was that 4-year-old. How precious is that?”

Donna Palmer, Steve Palmer

The fun pair are hoisted into the air while seated on chairs at daughter Erika Mandel’s wedding, part of the joyful hora dance traditionally performed at Jewish wedding receptions. (Photo: Adam Nyholt Photography)

Indeed, family is important to this couple. Steve has built a family legacy company, Creative Blinds, a residential and commercial window covering business, that he started in 1976 with a $10,000 inheritance from his grandmother. 

He treats employees like family and has hired plenty of actual family over the decades who saw the company hit new heights of success.

“My mom died early, age 47. My father retired a couple of years afterward. He had nothing to do,” recalls Steve. “He came to me, 57 at the time, and said ‘Can I do anything?’ And he stayed for 26 years.”

“My experience watching my dad at work is so eye opening because he gives people a chance, sometimes a second chance, third chance,” says daughter Erika Mandel. She and husband Jed are proud parents to Jack, 10, Max, 8 and Sonny, 5. “We’re madly in love with them,” Donna says of her grandsons.

“My mom and dad have such generous hearts. I think that both recognize the effect that each of them has had on their communities, in such a real way, naturally, organically,” continues Erika, who is often approached by people telling her how much her mother – who first taught in Houston’s Fifth Ward, then The Shlenker School, and 30 years as an award-winning kindergarten teacher at St. John’s School – profoundly impacted their lives. Donna retired in 2020. She keeps up with many of her former students.

Steve and Erika recently encountered a realtor at a client’s house who told them that Donna “literally changed my kids’ lives.”

“We hear that all the time,” says Steve. “She always gave everything she had to her teaching career, a gift beyond belief. She’d sprint out of bed and practically run to work. She was so excited to get there.”

“She made a big impact, hands down one of the best educators in the country,” says son Dustin. “And when things hit the fan, Donna Palmer is the first person to show up for you. Genuinely. Dad is the most selfless person I know, and Mom is the first to show up when things are hard. If there’s one trait I want from them, it’s those.

“They were a solid team in decision-making and always there for after-school events, sports, whatever,” he continues of his parents whose “love was written in the stars.”

His dad, always the captain of his baseball teams, traveling to his golf tournaments in high school, was a strong father figure, known for his “Palmerisms,” Dustin adds.

“He always says ‘Every day ends in Y,’ which means ‘What’s the difference between Monday and Saturday? Make each day a great day.’’’ 

“The sun’s coming up the next day. Whatever happened the day before?” It’s over, Steve affirms.

Jed Mandel, Erika Mandel, Dustin Palmer, Donna Palmer, Steve Palmer

FAMILY FUN The couple’s love for each other is a template for how marriage should be, say their grown children, Erika Mandel and Dustin Palmer. From left: Jed Mandel with wife Erika and Dustin join Steve and Donna on one of many fun family outings.

I have never met a man, or woman, with attributes that Steve has. He’s the most resilient man ever,” enthuses Donna. “Resilient to the core. A solution to every problem.”

And Donna, barely 5 feet, is as steady a person as you could know, even in her heels, say family and friends. This pint of a women, fit and petite, rocks them as if they’re comfy slippers. Her mom, at 94, likes to heel it up too. She recently purchased a glam pair on Amazon.

“I joke that I’m going to have ‘Donna Palmer was more than her heels’ put on my tombstone,” she quips of the footwear she was known for during her teaching years. 

“We loved every minute of teaching,” says Susan Spitzberg, Donna’s teaching partner at St. John’s School and formerly married to Steve’s cousin. “We couldn’t wait to get to work each day! It was the most amazing experience!

“Donna and Steve have the biggest hearts and are the most generous souls to walk this earth,” she adds, telling a favorite story: a surprise birthday party that Steve threw for his young wife at Houston’s Swensen’s Ice Cream parlor decades ago.

“He wasn’t sure who to invite, so he invited pretty much everyone off the street. Donna is always dressed to a T. She’s beautiful. But she walks into this place, and she wasn’t dressed at all for a party. And he’d invited a lot of people that maybe she’d only said ‘hi’ to once! Her face! We have laughed so much about that over the years.”

“Yeah, I’m always lipstick ready. This time, I wasn’t lipstick ready,” Donna recalls. “There were tons of people there I really didn’t know!”

Steve’s a much better party planner these days, pulling off a surprise anniversary “This is Your Life” nostalgia tour during their third decade of marriage, a driving excursion past all their old haunts: homes, schools, restaurants, and hangouts, many that no longer exist as the places they once frequented. “Included in that tour was where the police caught us parking!” says Donna. 

She recalls a particularly special 50th birthday surprise at The Brownstone in Houston that included all her dearest friends. 

“My sister Susie, the dearest human on earth, had arranged for a piano player to be there and she gave him all this information about me and helped him script the lyrics about me. And Erika, who had been off at college – and I missed her terribly – was sitting on the piano bench. I mean for Steve and my sister to surprise me like that….”

Donna Palmer, Steve Palmer, Jack Mandel, Max Mandel, Sonny Mandel

The couple say they are “madly in love” with (from left) grandsons Jack, Max, and Sonny Mandel, Erika and Jed’s children.

Steve was madly in love with her from the get-go,” says their friend Teri Straus. Steve knew Teri before Donna did, as neighbors. “He was this fast little kid on his bike, and I used to throw rocks at him.” 

No rocks were thrown on their wedding day at Austin’s Sheraton Crest hotel. Donna, “always beautiful,” was particularly lovely as she walked the aisle on May 20, 1973, though a tad uncomfortable due to sunburn. “In our infinite wisdom, we girls decided to lay out by the pool for four hours before the wedding,” Teri says. “Smart.” 

Oh, the stories Teri can tell. Like the time Donna didn’t put a lid on the popcorn and it pelted to the ceiling. Steve was laughing in shrieks. And the time Donna, always stylishly put together, called and asked to borrow a “boring” dress. 

“Oh my gosh, yes. I had something to go to where I needed something conservative! I meant conservative!” laughs Donna. 

“Donna and Steve have a lot of fun together. They respect each other, admire each other,” Teri says. “They’re the real deal.”

Donna and Steve Palmer

A LASTING LOVE Bellaire High School sweethearts Donna and Steve Palmer share a mutual respect for what each has brought to nearly 51 years of marriage. Included in that? Lots of laughter. (Photo:

“Donna is really the matriarch of the family and provides the glue for all of us sticking together. She’s the rock of our family,” boasts Steve. “She has the strength, grace, and unwavering dedication that’s brought us over 50 years together. So many countless memories… She’s been one great partner and mother to our kids! I could go on and on….”

“He’s a sweetheart. He made it easy,” replies Donna, laughing at a conversation her mother had with her decades ago. “She said ‘You never marry your first love, Donna.’ Scratch that! I’m glad she wasn’t right about this one! And she loves him!”

“The fire’s still burning,” says Steve, who jokes about a glaring difference between him and his wife.

She springs out of bed like it’s on fire, sheets and covers thrashing about everywhere. He slithers out like a snake, covers smoothly in place. You can scarce tell he’s been there. 

“Uncanny,” says Donna. “And one more thing I’ve got to mention. He never fails to squeegee the shower. That’s a love language in any marriage!” 

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