Last week I was privileged to interview Leon and Dorothy Williams, who celebrated their 69th anniversary in April.
The Huntington Park Ballroom was awash in men in uniform in 1946, but Dorothy Wunderlich, 17, had eyes for only one.
A tall, handsome sailor with piercing blue eyes had shown up late, but still managed to secure a dance with Dorothy.
“We danced to ‘Goodnight Ladies,’ ” she recalled. “It was the last dance of the night.”
From their log home in Elk, Dorothy smiled at her husband, Leon Williams.
“I called him my boyfriend after one dance,” she said. “I already had him cornered.”
Leon didn’t mind a bit. The 19-year-old had survived a rough childhood and already spent months at sea while serving with the Pacific fleet.
He never knew his father, and his stepfather was abusive. When he was 8, his stepfather was beating him and Leon’s 11-year-old brother Bud jumped on his back to try to end the beating.
Their stepfather kicked them out.
“My grandparents raised me and my brother,” Leon said.
The boys grew up in Milford, Utah. Bud dropped out of school his senior year to join the Navy, and Leon followed suit at 16 and was sent to Farragut Naval Training Station.
“You had to be 17 by the time you finished boot camp,” he explained. “I had my 17th birthday at Farragut.”
Hunting skills honed in Utah came in handy. His marksmanship earned him a spot as a gunner’s mate aboard the USS Ammen. He also served on the USS St. Paul.
Dorothy pulled a yellowed and stained Japanese flag from a box.
“This is proof he was there,” she said.
Leon explained that a fellow sailor had given him the flag during the invasion of Okinawa.
She also saved his blue wool sailor’s cap and every letter he wrote to her. And there were letters – because Leon was smitten after that single dance, and when he next had liberty, he hustled to the ballroom to meet Dorothy.
“He took me home on the bus afterward,” she said.
Leon was transferred to San Francisco, so letters flew back and forth. When he accrued enough leave time and knew he was eligible for discharge, he called her and told her to set a date for the wedding.
To his surprise, he had to get his mother’s written permission to marry because he wasn’t 21.
“I couldn’t understand it,” he said. “I’d been in the Navy for four years!”
They married April 6, 1947, and honeymooned in Las Vegas at his mother’s house. Leon’s brother and uncle came to Vegas to pick up a tractor and took the newlyweds back with them to Milford.
“The four of us were crammed into a tiny cab of a truck, hauling a tractor,” Dorothy said.
When asked how she felt about her unconventional honeymoon journey, she laughed and said, “I just shut up and went along. How do you think I’ve stayed married for 69 years?”
Leon took a job as the night marshal in Milford, but when an opportunity arose to work for the railroad, he jumped at the chance. He didn’t have a high school diploma, but a friend wrote “equivalent to” on the space for education and that was good enough. The pay was better and he needed the money.
The first two of their nine children had been born in 1948 and 1949.
In 1952, Union Pacific Railroad moved the family to Norwalk, California.
“I started as brakeman and was later promoted to conductor,” Leon said.
After several years in Norwalk, they bought a small ranch in Mira Loma, where their family flourished. Dorothy had been the oldest of nine, so she was used to a big family. However, replicating her family of origin was far from her mind when she married.
“I only wanted two!” she said.
But Leon relished being surrounded by four sons and five daughters.
“If I could do it over again, I’d have two or three more,” he said. “I wanted each and every one of them.”
Ranch life suited the family.
“We had chickens, pigs, horses and a garden,” Dorothy said.
Feeding her crew was a full-time job, especially since most evenings a neighbor kid or two would join the family.
“She always fixed good meals,” Leon said. “And every night we had dessert – cookies, pie or ice cream.”
They even had family vacations. The kids joked that they camped wherever there were railroad tracks. The family would cram into a 1957 Dodge station wagon and set off. It was common for hobos riding the rails to find their campsite. Instead of shooing them away, Dorothy welcomed them and shared whatever meal she’d prepared with the hungry men.
“They were so polite to our kids,” she recalled.
Once, when they’d graduated from station wagon to truck and camper, a hobo expressed a longing for apple pie.
“You bring me some apples, and I’ll bake you a pie,” Dorothy told him.
The next day he returned to the campsite with a big box of apples he “found” in a nearby orchard and Dorothy baked an apple pie in the oven in the camper, just as she’d promised.
After 38 years with Union Pacific, Leon retired, and he and Dorothy already knew where they wanted to spend their retirement years.
One of their sons had moved to Spokane and when Leon and Dorothy came to visit him, they fell in love with the area.
“This is heaven on Earth,” Dorothy said of their 40 acres in Elk.
All nine of their children live nearby, as do many of their 36 grandchildren and 55 great-grandchildren.
And last summer Leon and his brother Bud traveled back to Milford, Utah, where they finally received their high school diplomas. Forty-five students had dropped out of school to serve their country during World War II. Only four are still living, and only Bud and Leon were there to receive their long-awaited diplomas.
For Dorothy, 87, the reason for their long marriage is simple.
“I loved him, and that was it!”
Leon, 90, was equally succinct. He smiled at his bride and said, “You’ve just got to believe in each other.”