Valentine's Day; Making marriage work; A seaworthy romance

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

She first saw him when her pianist nudged her and said, ''Look at the new mate at the end of the gangplank.'' It was 1928 and Celestine Powers was performing as a violinist and hostessing on the SS Berkshire, a coastwise passenger cruise ship, when Jakob Wihlborg, a handsome blond Swede, stepped on board.

''He just stared at me and kept following me around the deck,'' recalls Mrs. Wihlborg, sitting in the living room of the couple's memento-filled Boston apartment. ''A few months later the captain of the ship fired him because he was paying too much attention to me.''

When Jakob proposed marriage, Celestine, who was 22, told him she was too young and having too much fun. ''I was in no hurry to get married. I was having a good time,'' she says.

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Jakob Wihlborg was patient enough to persist. ''I don't believe in brief acquaintances. I had eight years to size her up - so I should know what I was getting,'' he laughs, his gray-blue eyes sparkling.

In the next few years, Celestine Powers concentrated on her musical career, playing on various ships and with a trio at the Copley Plaza in Boston. She also played in the McDowell Club Orchestra, conducted by the late Arthur Fiedler before he joined the Boston Pops.

Jakob Wihlborg earned his captain's papers and his own ship. He plied Celestine with boxes of linens and other gifts from around the world and continued to court her whenever their paths crossed in different ports.

''J.B. must have proposed to me a hundred times - every time he saw me. He was always sure I'd marry him someday,'' says Mrs. Wihlborg. ''I had a lot of boyfriends - I wanted to be sure. And then I thought, 'What am I looking for, anyway?' Jakob was a good friend. I could always depend on him. He's honest and a good, solid man - the salt of the earth. After I married him I fell in love with him.''

Although his work still kept them apart a great deal of the time, ''I wasn't lonesome anymore. I had a home when I came into port,'' says Captain Wihlborg, who became an American citizen shortly before they married.

Captain Wihlborg says his wife was away from home almost as much as he was. She played the violin for concerts in Florida in the winter and Maine in the summer. An avid traveler, she also took several trips by ocean freighter up to six months at a time, visiting Africa, Egypt, Europe, or the Far East, either by herself or with a friend.

Mrs. Wihlborg says her husband never objected to her taking trips and cabled her flowers wherever she went. ''If I was in Bulgaria or Madrid I would find flowers in my room.''

The years during World War II presented serious challenges for the Wihlborgs, as they did for many other couples. Captain Wihlborg was commander of the Liberty ship David Starr Jordan during the Allied invasion of France in June 1944. His ship made a dozen runs between England and Normandy, carrying thousands of American troops, and was the first to make the round trip between Southampton, England, and the invasion beaches. He was often under fire from German planes or shore-based artillery and barely escaped a bombing in Antwerp, Belgium.

After the war ended, he took command of the troopship Wooster Victory, which shuttled American troops home and German prisoners from the United States back to Europe.

He retired from the sea in 1968. ''When the weather is good I miss traveling at sea, but when it is bad I'm glad I'm home,'' he says with a smile.

Looking back on their far-flung experiences, Captain Wihlborg reflects: ''Being apart helped bring us together. I think it's beneficial to take a trip away from your spouse now and then - you appreciate them more.''

Although their life is quieter now, the Wihlborgs enjoy gatherings with their maritime friends and weekend trips to New York, and they are looking forward to a forthcoming meeting with the King and Queen of Sweden.

Mrs. Wihlborg says she and her husband, who will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary in June, have always had fun together but they are closer now. They have seen each other through financial and other difficulties, including the recent condominium conversion of their building, which may force them out of the apartment they've lived in for more than 30 years.

She also believes the decision to wait before getting married helped them in the long run: ''When we were young we were more careful. Today I think people enter marriage on a trial basis. I think they miss out.''

Captain Wihlborg says, ''One reason we get along so well is, we like the same things in life. Our opinions in politics are similar, and we both like art and classical music. We also share a love of the sea.''

Mrs. Wihlborg appreciates her husband's kindness, gentle manner, and sunny disposition. And she loves him for the Viennese waltz he still does so well.

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