March 24, 2011 in Washington Voices

Love story: Family, world travel part of their decades together

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Bill and Jay Warren recently celebrated their 61st anniversary. They met on a blind date in college, soon after Bill returned from Germany at the end of World War II. They’ve dedicated their busy lives to serving others. In the early 1960s, Bill was recruited as a trainer in the Peace Corps. They spent two years in the Philippines and one year in Nepal with six young children. Then they signed up for another aid organization and spent an additional three years in Kenya with seven children ages 1 to 14.
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Bill and Jay Warren arrived in Spokane in 2007, via New Jersey, Texas, the Philippines, Nepal and points in between. The couple met on a blind date in 1946.

Bill had served two years in the Army after being drafted at age 18. “I shipped out to Europe,” he recalled. “We were replacement troops for those lost in the Battle of the Bulge.”

He doesn’t gloss over his combat experience. “A lot of it was horrible – nothing to glorify war.”

The young soldier was part of an ammunition and pioneer platoon engaged in a fierce struggle along the Siegfried Line. “Because we were a munitions group, we were sent out at night,” he said.

One night he fell into an exhausted sleep under a table. “They were looking for me to go out on patrol, but they couldn’t find me,” Bill said. He paused and glanced down at his hands. “Out of the 12 men who went out that night, only one came back.”

Upon his discharge from the Army, he enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. A fraternity buddy set him up with Jay, who was attending college nearby. They went to a football game, followed by supper and dancing at the fraternity house.

“Honestly, I remember thinking, I wasn’t impressed with Bill,” Jay recalled. Instead she viewed the date as a way to meet other fellows in his fraternity.

Bill, however, was smitten and quickly asked for another date. By 1947 they were an item. “We met each other’s families,” Jay said. “And our mothers had tea one afternoon.”

Long conversations about world affairs, travel and children became a hallmark of their courtship. “I always enjoyed being with her,” said Bill.

Jay laughed. “We talked politics – eventually we agreed.”

During the summer of 1948, they both took jobs in Cape Cod at an inn. “There was a lake across the street, and a mountain with a lookout tower,” Jay said.

One evening, they hiked up to the lookout tower, and Bill took a ring out of his pocket and proposed. Jay’s parents were staying in a nearby motel, and the excited couple pounded on their door and woke them, to share the news.

“My dad said, ‘We have to toast this!’ ” said Jay. “But all they had in the hotel was scotch and cranberry juice, so that’s what we toasted our engagement with.”

They married on Aug. 20, 1949, and a year later moved to Colorado so Bill could pursue a master’s degree in management engineering. However, halfway through the year, he was recalled by the Army. The Korean War had begun.

Because he’d done ROTC in college, this time Bill went in as a second lieutenant. “I served a year and a half and never had to go overseas,” he said.

In 1951, the couple moved to Texas where Bill taught school and the first of their children arrived. When they’d been dating, the couple had talked about how many children they wanted. They agreed four kids would be nice, but six would be perfect. They ended up with seven.

Jay said large families were common at that time. “I think it was a result of having lived through the war years,” she said. “It was a relief. The world was positive – at least our little part of it was.”

Bill received his master’s degree in 1954 and accepted a job at Harvard Business School. A succession of teaching jobs took the growing family across the East Coast. Eventually, they wound up in Massachusetts where Bill worked in the education department of Polaroid.

While there they heard about President Kennedy’s Peace Corps. “In those long talks we had before we married, we talked about wanting to work overseas,” Jay said.

When Bill was offered a position with the newly formed Peace Corps he immediately took it, without discussing it with his wife. He knew she’d be thrilled – and she was.

“It was like something wonderful dropped in our laps,” she said. So, with six children under age 10, they moved to the Philippines.

“Our families were wonderfully supportive,” Jay said. “They never once said, ‘What the hell are you guys doing!?’ ”

After two years in the Philippines, the family traveled to Nepal, where Bill served as Peace Corps director for one year.

In 1964, they moved to New Jersey, where their seventh child was born. They weren’t there long. Bill had taken a job with the Education Development Center and was soon asked if he’d be willing to relocate to Kenya.

Once again, the family eagerly embarked on a new adventure. Bill enjoyed his work. “I developed hands-on science material for kids in English-speaking areas of Africa,” he said. “That program is still being used in eight countries.”

Jay found plenty to do as well. “She was never home,” Bill said, laughing. Thanks to household help, she was able to work in local orphanages and implement adoption programs.

From Kenya, they returned to the U.S. Bill took a job as an elementary school principal in Massachusetts. And when their youngest child started kindergarten, Jay went back to college, eventually earning a master’s degree in social work.

She worked for an educational collaborative, and after 14 years as a school principal, Bill joined her, taking a position as a therapist for troubled teens.

In the late 1980s they both began to cut back their caseloads, and finally retired in 1992. Several years ago Bill was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In 2007, the couple made the cross-country move to Spokane where their two youngest children live.

When asked the secret to a six-decade marriage, Jay shook her head and laughed. “I don’t give advice anymore.”

Bill said marrying Jay was the best decision he ever made. “She’s the most wonderful person in the world. I have Parkinson’s but she is there for me. My nickname for her is Wonder Woman.”

His wife shrugged off his praise. “I don’t do anything major – I button his buttons,” she said.

“Driving is major!” Bill countered.

“Yes, I do the driving now,” she agreed.

From their South Hill living room they watched a storm swoop in. Bill cleared his throat. “Wherever we traveled, as long as we were together – it was home.”

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