One evening in the spring of 1943, Betty Ratzman received a phone call that changed her life. An 18-year-old college freshman she’d never met was on the line, and he asked her for a date.
Dean Ratzman explained, “I was a pledge in a frat at WSU and a few of us rented a room in Spokane at the Davenport Hotel.”
Being from Tacoma, he didn’t know any local girls, so before Dean left the campus he asked his chemistry partner for the names and phone numbers of some of her friends.
Once the frat pledges arrived in Spokane, Dean began to work his way down the list. “I called Betty, and we visited. She said she wouldn’t go anywhere with me alone, but she called some girlfriends and we all went to a movie.”
The date proved memorable for Betty – the movie did not. “We went to see ‘Cat People,’ ” she said. “I was very farsighted and I’d just got my glasses, but I didn’t put them on.”
Unfortunately, the only seats available were in the front row. “I sat through the whole movie with my neck back and my eyes closed,” she said. Periodically, Dean whispered movie updates to her.
“I thought she was very pretty,” he said. “I definitely was more interested in her than she was in me. She told me not to get my hopes up.”
Betty, a freshman at Holy Names College, had dated a boy throughout high school. Though he was away attending officer’s training school, they still corresponded.
In the fall of 1943, Dean enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Farragut Naval Base. On a whim, he showed up at her parent’s home. “They invited me in for dinner!”
But soon, Dean left for California and then shipped out to the central Pacific. Throughout his tour of duty, Betty wrote to him. She also sent a picture that Dean said made the other sailors jealous. “Betty is a great letter writer,” he said. “Her letters were a highlight for me – but I didn’t know who else she was writing to.” He grinned. “She was very patriotic.”
After the invasion of the Marianas, Dean wound up in Saipan. He’d contracted dengue fever several times during his stint in the islands. While in Saipan he got a hernia. Following surgery, he was sent to a hospital ship, the USS Sanctuary. Doctors aboard ship discovered Dean’s heart had been damaged during his bouts with fever.
When they docked in Oakland, physicians at the naval hospital diagnosed the 20-year-old sailor with two leaky heart valves. “The doctors said there wasn’t anything they could do,” Dean recalled. “They told me I probably wouldn’t live past middle age.”
From Oakland he called Betty to tell her that he’d been given the option to recuperate at any military hospital. “I asked her about Farragut and she said that was a good idea.” Then he smiled. “My heart leapt. I thought maybe I had a shot.”
They quickly reconnected and their budding relationship flourished. In February 1946, Dean was discharged. He showed up at Betty’s home for a family dinner and proposed to her in the kitchen. “I had a ring in my pocket.”
Betty laughed. “He’s very impulsive!”
Dean had fallen deeply in love with her through her letters, and he’d grown to love her family, too. “I was from a broken home and Betty had this wonderful, close-knit family.”
Betty recalled his proposal. “He told me the doctors said he wouldn’t live past 40. Then he asked me to marry him! I told him, ‘You’re not going to get out of it that easily!’ ”
From their North Spokane living room she smiled at her 85-year-old husband. “When you’re 20, 40 seems like forever. I figured I’d get another one (husband) after that.”
During their engagement Dean attended classes at Washington State College and Betty taught at the Benewah School. “I taught 31 children in eight grades,” she recalled. “There was no running water. My uncle cut wood for the school and for the teacherage, which was just a tiny one-room shack.” She shook her head at the memory. “I was ready to get married!”
On June 23, 1946, they married in Spokane at Westminster Congregational Church. Immediately after the wedding, they returned to Pullman because Dean had class the next day. “I’m waiting for my honeymoon,” Betty said.
In 1947, their son Michael was born, and soon the family moved to Missoula, where Dean graduated from law school at Montana State University. A daughter, Celia, arrived in 1949 and a second son, Steve, completed the family in 1956.
Dean took a job with Bonneville Power Administration and eventually became a supervising attorney for the U.S. Department of the Interior. That position led to an appointment as chairman of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s board of contract appeals, which necessitated a move to Virginia.
“On the weekends we explored the Civil War battlefields,” Dean said. “Our youngest didn’t have to read about history – he experienced it.”
Dean later accepted an appointment as a U.S. administrative law judge and the family moved to Sacramento. When he retired from that position in 1981, he and Betty returned to Spokane.
“Her family had become my family,” said Dean. “Her father called me the son he never had – we were great friends and fishing partners.”
While in Virginia, Betty discovered an abiding passion for genealogy. The couple has twice traveled to England and Ireland, exploring their family history.
Dean may be impulsive but his wife said, “I’ve always appreciated that he lets me be me. I’m unusual – I can entertain myself quite well.”
After 64 years of marriage, Betty remains glad she answered that phone call from a stranger. She reached over and took Dean’s hand. “He’s a great man.”