A piece of paper randomly drawn from a basket sparked a relationship that has spanned 69 years and counting.
Walter and Laura Stewart met at Fort Wayne Bible Institute in 1940. Each month, students drew scraps of paper with a table and seat number written on it to find out where they’d sit for meals in the dining room. “Lo and behold, after a few months, Walter was assigned to my table,” recalled Laura. He made quite an impression. “He pulled my chair out for me. Most of the boys were farm boys, but Walter was from Detroit – he was a city boy,” she said.
She’d had plenty of opportunities to observe the handsome young man. Walter led songs during their weekly services. “Each Friday night, he dressed up.”
Walter found his feisty tablemate intriguing. “The other guys were scared of this girl from New York City,” he said. “So they dared me to ask her out, and I did! We walked down to the park and back – a 45-minute date.”
But in those 45 minutes, he found a new way to impress the city girl. “He knew the name of every bird we saw!” Laura said. While she didn’t share his knowledge of ornithology, she was a singer and shared his passion for music.
“She was soloist, so we had something in common,” Walter said.
With a big concert approaching, he borrowed a car and asked Laura if she’d like to go with him. She agreed. Seventy years later, in their Spokane Valley apartment, he stole a glance at her. “That was the first time you kissed me,” he said, chuckling.
“No! No! You rascal, you!” Laura said, laughing.
Walter shrugged and with a broad grin, proceeded to tell the real story of their first kiss. “I kissed her in the hallway after a music lesson,” he admitted. “I kissed her so hard you could hear it down the hall!”
Though he said they were too poor to marry, he soon asked Laura to be his wife. When the school year drew to a close, she went home to Long Island and he traveled back to Detroit.
Their separation didn’t last long. “I bought a diamond ring for her and hitchhiked all the way to Long Island to give it to her.”
They both found employment in aircraft factories in Long Island, and with her mother’s blessing, they plunged into wedding plans.
The couple married in June of 1941 in Garden City Park on Long Island. Laura laughed when she recalled what transpired after the ceremony. “We sang together at the wedding reception and when we thought no one was looking, we snuck out through the kitchen and made our getaway.”
But they weren’t stealthy enough and soon found themselves followed by a caravan of cars. Walter’s friends “kidnapped” him and treated him to ice cream before releasing him to his bride. Laura wasn’t thrilled by the chain of events, but the experience later came in handy. “As a pastor’s wife, I’ve told many a bride, whatever happens, just roll with it,” she said.
They settled into married life and eagerly anticipated the birth of their first child, when tragedy struck. The baby died at birth. As Laura woke from the anesthesia, she said, “I heard a baby cry, then the doctor said, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
The loss was especially hard, as Walter had enlisted in the Navy and was soon to be shipped out. As he processed the loss of their child, he said, “I sat at the aircraft factory and cried like a baby. You plan for nine months and then it’s just gone. It was a little girl.”
However, war doesn’t wait for grief, and in December 1943, Walter was sent to Hawaii and then on to Guam. He’ll never forget the things he saw in the Pacific. “Shot up, devastated, rotting corpses – the smell was horrible. It was like a horror movie when we got there.”
Walter served 2 1/2 years. “That was enough for me,” he said.
His wife was waiting for him. “I can still see him in that little white sailor hat,” she recalled. No band played as he walked toward her, but Laura still treasures the memory of that reunion. That isn’t to say all went smoothly. Like many couples separated by World War II, the Stewarts had to readjust to life together.
Laura said, “He found out his wife had become a little independent.” But their deep love for each other and their shared faith helped ease the transition.
The G.I. Bill enabled Walter to attend Gordon College in Boston. Sadly, as he pursued his ministerial degree, Laura lost another baby. “After the second baby, I was through,” she said. “I didn’t want any children.”
Following graduation, they moved west and pastored churches in the Portland area, where Walter enrolled in seminary. He hadn’t given up the dream of being a father. “I broached the subject of having another baby,” he said.
It didn’t go well. “If I’d had a gun, I would have shot him,” Laura said. She still felt raw from the loss of her first two babies. But one year after that conversation she gave birth to a daughter, Roberta Joy.
Five years later, at the age of 42, she found out she was expecting again. “I told the doctor, if I’m pregnant it’s a miracle. The doctor said, ‘Well, I found a miracle and it’s a good-sized one!”
Their daughter Laurie completed their family in 1959.
After raising their daughters and serving in many churches, the couple retired to Desert Hot Springs, Calif. “We wanted to get away from the rain,” said Laura. Eventually, the couple, both 93, moved to Spokane Valley to be near their younger daughter.
The Stewarts credit their faith in God for their lasting marriage, and Laura’s eyes still sparkle when she talks about her husband. “I knew in my heart that the love we had for one another was something you don’t find in many marriages,” she said. “Walter’s always had a heart for his family and he’s been the one to forgive and forget. I’ve been a tough egg to crack, but I’ve softened over the years.”
And Walter is still thankful for that slip of paper that seated him at her table so long ago. His voice grew husky as he recounted their life together. “She’s what I need to fill in the blanks.”
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