The numbers alone are inspiring. Seventy years of marriage. That’s 25,550 days and roughly 76,760 meals together.
Robert L. and Wanda June Bleecker of Elma celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary July 5, at Heritage Hall in Olympia. Guests came from all corners of the United States to honor the couple who exchanged vows June 30, 1941, in Tacoma. For the Bleeckers, the joy in those numbers stems from their seven children, 21 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren, with another three on the way.
They have lived their life with the adage, “family first,” and have devoted countless hours, days and dollars attending ball games, swim meets, dramatic productions, concerts, graduations, weddings and other milestones in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. For the past 50-plus years, they’ve hosted nearly every holiday gathering, including epic Easter egg hunts and coordinated more than a dozen Fourth of July parades down at their homestead in Satsop Maple Glen.
“We have been so blessed to have each of them,” June said. “They still like to come here, be here, and spend time here with us. These days, not many people can say that,” she said. “We have been so lucky.”
Sitting together on a bench seat swing shaded by a large umbrella, the former Tacoma couple recalled their earliest days with confidence, certainty, and humor.
“We had never really dated officially before Bob left for the war,” June said. Then, in a whispering aside, she leaned over to confess, “I didn’t care much for him when I first met him. I told him I wouldn’t go to a dogfight with him” let alone a date. But Bob was resilient, wooing June by coming in to her folks’ restaurant at Hoodsport to have a hamburger and going for walks along the beach afterward. Bob, whose mother operated a telephone switchboard out of their home, remembers taking June across the canal in a 14-foot boat to deliver telephone messages to people who didn’t have a phone.
“She couldn’t get away that way,” he said. “The current could get pretty strong and the crossing was tough at times.”
When both Bob’s and June’s brothers, Burke, Jim, Melvin and Cecil, were all drafted at the beginning of World War II, Bob decided work at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard was not for him. Because a fire had destroyed Bremerton hospital records, including Bob’s birth certificate, “I had to get my mother to write a letter to the recruiting office saying I was 18,” even though he was only 17. In 1942, Bob enlisted in the Navy, serving in the South Pacific aboard the U.S.S. Carlson.
In the meantime, June worked as a “Rosie the riveter” on PF-38 bombers at McChord Field in Tacoma and the two exchanged letters often enough to prompt Bob to propose marriage while he was home on hospital leave after sustaining a war injury in 1944.
A reserved and sentimental man, Bob often relies on his friendly nature and sense of humor to avert serious discussions requiring personal responses. When asked what made him decide to ask June to marry him during the war, he quipped, “I thought she was pregnant.” But he quickly recanted when June reminded him that their first child wasn’t born for another three years.
And so, at 18 and 19, June and Bob were wed in an evening ceremony in Lake City, Tacoma. Proudly, June recalled, “It was all very nice; we had a small wedding because of the war — people couldn’t travel long distances on gas ration stamps.”
Two weeks later, Bob returned to active duty and it was a year and a half before they were reunited.
“It was a joyous reunion as his two brothers and my two brothers also came home safely,” June said. “So, as young married kids we used to do a lot of things together. None of us had a lot of money but we always looked forward to Friday and Saturday nights because we would do something special.”
Beyond their varied careers, children, and ever increasing cost of living, the Bleeckers describe their marriage as “typical” of people of their generation, known for their work ethic and sense of duty.
“These days too many kids enter marriage with the idea that if it doesn’t work, I’ll just get a divorce,” June explained. “In our day, you just didn’t do that. You made it work.”
Both Bob and June have done plenty of that. “It takes a lot of give and take,” June relayed.
“We’ve had plenty of good days and some pretty bad days,” Bob added.
“You have to be willing to take the bad with the good,” June concluded.
“Or the disastrous,” Bob chuckled.
They’ve had that as well. While both agree that their children have been the best part of their marriage, they are quick to add that losing them has been the worst. No parent should have to bury a child, but the Bleeckers have had to bear witness to the death of two of their children. They lost Wendy to appendicitis at age 4. They lost Wanda to cancer in 2002. In between, they bore the burden of two sons fighting the war in Vietnam, a house fire, and numerous injuries, accidents and hurt feelings.
“It was an exciting life and the ups and downs we had just made life that much richer,” June said. “We had a family we were very proud of; they were the joy of our lives. Though we were never very rich, our kids always knew they were very loved and wanted.”
Vivian Bleecker is a former Daily World reporter who is married to Jim Bleecker, one of Bob and June Bleecker’s sons.