When my parents “joined together”

This week’s theme in Amy Johnson Crowe’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” is “Joined Together.” I don’t have any carpenters in my family tree so I turned to a more obvious choice: how my parents became joined together in marriage.

Bill and Sarah met in college at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, Illinois. Getting there for both involved life’s random of events and coincidences, and if my dad had been a better student, they may have never crossed paths. My father was born in and grew up in Chicago, while my mother was a Texas native. Dad went to college, the first time, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he partied hard, failed a bunch of classes, and, as he put it, was “invited not to come back” for a second year. This was the 1956-57 academic year. In 1956, my mom’s father was working in the oil business in Carmi, a southern Illinois town about 80 miles east of Carbondale. Mom told me that her father knew someone who worked at SIU who was able to get her a work-study job on campus, and so that’s why she went to school there in 1956.

Back in Chicago, my grandfather reacted to his son’s college contretemps with the command (according to my dad), “well, now you can pick up a shovel, or pick up a rifle.” My dad, not wishing to choose either option, prevailed upon his father to let him have another chance at academics. He agreed, with the proviso that my dad attend only a college in state. So, after catching up in summer school, my dad enrolled in the university furthest away from Chicago—Southern Illinois in Carbondale.

My parents thus met as early as fall 1957, and certainly by spring semester 1958, as shown by this photo of them together (which is one of the earliest photos I have of them together).

Slide from my father’s collection on which he wrote, “The best couple, Dorm Party, Feb. 1958.” Author’s co

In the Summer of 1958, my mom got a job working as a secretary in Denver, so she spent those months there with a friend. My dad stayed in Carbondale, and wrote letter after letter to my mom, which letters remain in my possession (his to her, but not her replies, unfortunately). In a letter dated June 25, he wrote:

Well doll, I have just about run out of “nothing” to say. I sure do miss you though and I’m thinking about you all the time. You’ve only been gone 2 weeks, but it seems like about 2 months. I just can’t believe that I might not see you until late September. That will never do. I’ll really try to get out there when school is over or something anyway.”

My dad probably spent the summer partying as evidenced by this picture he took of his friends either at the end of the school year or beginning of summer. His letters also attest to frequent nights out and even some double dates with friends.

Written on the slide: “So who’s sober? Blast at C.O.” Author’s collection.

In a July 14 letter, dad spoke to the fact that he was dating other girls, but with a profession of longing.

Sarah honey, I want you to stop worrying about Peggy. It’s true I’ve been dating her for the past couple weeks, but like I said in my previous letter I see no future in it. However I do see you in the future though. A future of about 9 weeks hence I hope. Dang that is still a long time to go. You know something honey, I really get the blues when I look at all our pictures and then I start thinking about all our fabulous times together …

He followed up near the end of the summer, in late August, with a very nice compliment to my mother.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret of mine, doll. Every time I see a girl around here I always attempt to compare them with you but for some odd reason you always are so far ahead in everything that they aren’t even worth comparing! Say did I ever tell you I liked tall goodlookin’ blonds with a Texas accent!

My parents continued attending college and dating at SIU for the next few years. She graduated in June 1960, but he had to take one more term to complete his degree, finishing at the end of 1960. Sometime in that year, maybe in October, they became engaged. The story I’ve heard is that on a visit to his parents’ home in Chicago, my dad popped the question … while his mother was standing in the room with them. I don’t know if there was a ring involved, but if it is true then it doesn’t sound very romantic.

They wed on December 30, 1960, in Kilgore, Texas, near where her parents and extended family lived (her parents had moved from Carmi to White Oak, Texas, at some point while she was in college).

Bill and Sarah, December 30, 1960, Kilgore, Texas. Photo in author’s collection.

The ceremony was performed by my mother’s uncle, Rev. Marvin Lee Boland (her mother’s brother-in-law). My dad told me once that when they walked out of the church, he remembers seeing the oil drilling towers dotting the Kilgore skyline. I believe this photo is of Kilgore, taken by my father during a visit in 1959 (though it could be one of many small towns in East Texas at that time).

A town in Texas, maybe Kilgore, photo by my father, now in author’s personal collection.
Bill and Sarah, December 30, 1960, Kilgore, Texas. Photo in author’s collection.

Another story my father told me once, which may have happened at their wedding, is that when he met my mother’s step-grandmother, Granny Georgie, she wouldn’t talk to him after learning he was from Chicago, since her father had been a Confederate soldier captured and imprisoned by the Yankees. My mom disputed that, saying only that she couldn’t understand him, saying only “he talks funny.”

My mom, having graduated earlier in the year, had either already secured or already started a teaching job in St. Louis. So, immediately after the wedding reception, the new couple drove from Kilgore to St. Louis. My dad liked to relate how his buddies did some trick on the car to make it sound like it was backfiring as they drove away. They were a bunch of early-twenty-somethings, so of course tricks were played.

The rest is another story. I will say, however, that my parent’s marriage ended in 1986 after a two-year separation. Their early happiness did not survive the ‘80s, but they did find some degree of friendship again by the time they passed away.

— Fred Dews

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