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Ring confusion adds twist to courtship

Jackie and Gene Zanck laugh together as they hold hands and share the story of how they met and fell in love. They are shown at their home in Spokane Valley. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Jackie and Gene Zanck laugh together as they hold hands and share the story of how they met and fell in love. They are shown at their home in Spokane Valley. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Her white nurse’s uniform caught his eye. “Those sexy white shoes!” he recalled, grinning. Then he noticed her slender legs and shapely ankles. “I could marry those legs,” he thought.

Gene Zanck was a young Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton when he met his future wife, Jackie, at a dinner party. That was 62 years ago. While Gene felt an immediate attraction to the nurse with the shapely legs, his feelings weren’t reciprocated. As they sat in their Spokane Valley home, Jackie shot him a sidewise glance and said, “When I first laid eyes on that guy I was NOT impressed.”

Gene nodded. “She gave me the cold shoulder.”

Jackie had come to Los Angeles from a small Montana town to launch her nursing career. Marines were plentiful in Southern California, and this particular Marine sported a large silver ring on the third finger of his left hand.

Still, when they left the party at the same time, she accepted his offer of a ride home. Except he didn’t take her home. “I left her at a bus stop,” Gene said. “Not a good idea, I now realize. It was dark and late.” He shrugged.

A week later he was invited to a picnic with the same group of people. “Will Jackie be there?” he asked. After being assured the pretty nurse had been invited, he agreed to go.

Jackie was also interested in whether Gene would attend. “Will that brash, loudmouth from Chicago be there?” she asked.

At the picnic her continued coolness puzzled Gene. “I ignored him,” she admitted.

Finally, he grabbed the volleyball in midgame and asked her why she was giving him such a hard time. “I don’t like married men who hustle single girls,” she said.

Flabbergasted he blurted, “I’m not married!”

Jackie eyed his hand. “Well you’ve got a wedding ring on.”

Much relieved, Gene explained that he’d bought the ring when he was stationed in China several years earlier. He pointed to the symbols on the ring – a dragon chasing a pearl, and suggested he was the dragon and she was the pearl.

After that, Jackie’s attitude toward Gene warmed up considerably. They began dating, though Jackie insisted to mutual friends that their relationship was purely platonic. Gene admits, “I had to look that word up!”

One memorable date occurred at a local nightclub. The club featured theater-style seating and because the couple arrived late, they were seated in the top row. As a popular singer/pianist launched into his show, Gene sat back and relaxed. He’d been on duty the night before and he relaxed a little too much. Stretching out his legs, he promptly fell asleep. Unfortunately, a waiter with a tray full of glasses tripped over Gene’s leg and he woke to the sound of shattering glass.

Jackie smiled at the story. “We enjoyed each other,” she said. “We had a lot of laughs.”

When Gene was released from active duty in 1951, they pondered their future. Neither enjoyed living in California. Gene decided to return to Illinois, Jackie to Montana. Chaperoned by Jackie’s grandmother, who’d come to visit, the threesome set off on their cross-country trek.

“The first thing Grandma said to Jackie’s folks when we got out of the car (in Montana) was, ‘Don’t let her marry this guy – he’s no good!’ ” Gene recalled.

Grandma had definite opinions and shared them freely. After a short visit with her parents, Jackie decided she didn’t want to stay in Montana and told Gene, “I’m going to Illinois with you.”

That was fine with him, and, surprisingly, with Jackie’s parents. Gene said, “They told me they always did the opposite of what Grandma said and if she says you’re no good, you must be alright.”

After all the effort Gene put into securing Jackie’s affection, he admits there was no formal proposal of marriage. Instead on New Year’s Eve when people pestered them with questions about when they’d get married, he looked at Jackie and said, “I don’t know. How about April?”

She agreed.

They married April 21, 1952. Gene worked as an area manager for a company that produced mining tools. Jackie worked at a local VA Hospital until her pregnancy with their first child became noticeable. “In those days no one wanted to show off their pregnant bellies,” she said.

Jackie gave birth to four children in five years. In 1958, the family moved to Salt Lake City when Gene accepted a position with Boise Cascade. While in Salt Lake, two more children joined the family.

When the company transferred Gene to Spokane in 1962, they finally put down roots and built a home on the South Hill where they lived for 40 years. Their seventh child arrived in 1964.

Busy years ensued. Their four sons played football and two of them received football scholarships to Washington State University. “The boys were jocks, the girls were brains,” said Gene with a grin.

Sadness touched the family with the death of daughter Cheryl, at 18. She’d been born with a congenital heart defect, so they knew she lived on borrowed time. Still, Gene said, “The loss was difficult.”

In 1967 Gene went into business for himself with the opening of Pre Built Structures. Jackie put her parenting expertise to good use and opened a day care in the family home. “I enjoyed every minute of it,” she said.

They both retired in 2000 and began a series of cross-country road trips. Jackie said, “We’ve always loved to travel.”

Recent health issues have forced Gene, 85, and Jackie, 84 to curtail their travels.

Jackie was matter-of-fact when she reflected on why she fell in love with “that brash loudmouth from Chicago.” She said, “It wasn’t anything earthshaking – it was just something that seemed so right.”

That cheeky Marine said, “Believe it or not, I prayed for a good woman to be my wife.” He paused and looked at Jackie. “My prayers were answered.”