Reporters’ Note: This is the third in a four-part series about individuals who have found love on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution. The idyllic setting of Chautauqua Lake and the quaint streets with generations of tradition paints the perfect background for love, young and old. We aimed to bring together stories of love that were fostered by nights spent in the College Club, performances in the Amphitheater, evenings on porches and walks on the dock — love fostered by the mix and magic of Chautauqua.
John Pless considers himself a fatalist, or one who believes all events in life — love and loss, tragedy and triumph — can be boiled down to the idea humans are powerless to what actually transpires.
If John’s mother hadn’t left Hungry at the height of World War II in 1939 on a boat traveling westward to the United States, he may have been left behind with his the rest of Jewish relatives, who eventually died under the Nazi regime.
Later, he wouldn’t have been able to visit the Chautauqua Institution with his family as a teenager, where he followed his father’s footsteps and became infatuated with opera. Of course, this influenced his decision to coordinate a weekend trip to Chautauqua to see an Amphitheater concert when he was the monthly chairman of the Downtown YMCA’s Social Outing Club in Buffalo in 1955.
He wouldn’t have met Eleanor when they felt classical music filling the Amp, spent time on the sandy beaches of Mayville or, later that evening, dined in nearby restaurant. Nor would he have recognized her months later as she walked into a Buffalo-area temple for a dance. He wouldn’t have asked her out on a date.
It’s romantic to piece together moments of fate in their relationship, but their bluntness with each other brings them back to reality of the nearly 60 years they’ve spent together.
“I remembered him from the beach,” Eleanor said. “When we went to the restaurant, he was in charge, and he was acting like a big shot and I thought, ‘Who the hell is he?’ ”
John and Eleanor would marry the next year in October 1956, but the relationship had its uncertainties.
“My brother thought [John] wasn’t Jewish,” Eleanor said. “He said to his then-girlfriend — and later wife — ‘I think my sister is going out with someone who’s not Jewish.’ ”
The suspicion was heightened by the revelation of John’s middle name, Paul, but the two would marry, eventually move to Erie, Pennsylvania, have two daughters, and good fortune would help them find their way back to Chautauqua on behalf of an invitation from John’s father.
In searching for a house to rent for their weeklong stay, the couple would fall in love again, this time with the house they still live in today.
“I looked at all the arrangements and the first one on the list was 4 Judson,” Eleanor said. “It was paneled and dark, but I walked in here and I felt so good. I said, ‘We’re taking it.’ ”
A weeklong stay would turn into 40 years and counting of the Chautauqua experience, spending mornings sitting on their second-story porch before lectures, discussing and thoughtfully arguing, and, of course, visiting the opera performances in the evening.
“He’s more than an opera nut,” Eleanor said. “If there was no opera here, I don’t know if he would come.”
Nearing 90, the two are staying busy. John still works part-time in finance, assisting people with reverse mortgages, and Eleanor said she attends every lecture.
“I think that, if we didn’t come to Chautauqua, we would probably be bored,” Eleanor said. “When we go to Chautauqua, John will go his separate way to the opera, and I’ll go to some of them, but we’ll go to the lectures. If he doesn’t want to go, I still go. We can do our own thing and still be together.”
The couple lives in Florida during the Chautauqua off-season, but they returm to where the abundance of content and atmosphere pales in comparison to the aura of life by the lake.
“It’s romantic because it’s relaxing,” Eleanor said. “All the pressures from the outside world aren’t here. The only pressure is getting to a concert or getting to a lecture or the pressure of old age, like bad knees and a bad back.”
Like any relationship, the Plesses said they’ve had their fair share of ups and downs, short tempers (and short-term memory to even out their disagreements), but have ultimately weathered through them.
To John and Eleanor, it may have been fate that brought them together, but it’s been Chautauqua that reinvigorates their life every season.
“Needless to say, Chautauqua is our shot in the arm,” Eleanor said. “We look forward to coming here, and I don’t know what would happened if it would stop.”