He was a single dad raising seven children. She was a single mom with five kids. In 1966, Mel and Darlene Le Claire met when she moved into a house behind him in south Spokane.
“Our kids played together,” Darlene recalled. His oldest was 13 and the youngest just 5. Her kids ranged in age from 14 to 7. The kids ran back and forth between the two houses, but the adults didn’t meet until Darlene saw Mel walking past her house.
He was so handsome, she said, “I thought he was worth meeting.”
Gathering her courage, she went over and knocked on his back door. No answer. She went around to the front and rang the bell. No answer.
“I was vacuuming!” Mel said, laughing. He finally heard the bell and Darlene is forever grateful that she didn’t give up and go back home.
They saw each other frequently due to their kids’ interactions. Mel took to inviting Darlene along when he went to a local watering hole with two of his buddies, who were also divorced. She smiled. “I danced with them all.”
Mel worked for Spokane Public Schools and could fix just about anything. When he saw Darlene hauling loads of laundry to the laundromat he told her to go to a thrift store and buy a washer, and he’d make sure it ran. “I bought one for $7.25,” she said. “And guess what? He’s still doing my washing!”
When Darlene knew her feelings for Mel were becoming romantic, she decided to move. “I bought a house and moved away.”
By “away” she meant five or six blocks. She didn’t want her proximity to influence Mel’s feelings for her.
Mel didn’t let the distance daunt him. “He remodeled the house for me,” Darlene said.
After living in Spokane for awhile, Darlene wanted to visit her mother on the Oregon coast. Mel offered to drive her and her five kids.
They’d just returned and walked in the door to Darlene’s house when her phone began to ring. It was her mother and she wanted to talk to Mel. A few minutes into their conversation Mel asked for permission to marry Darlene.
As she remembered that phone call, Darlene’s eyes grow teary. “It was the first I’d heard anything about marriage!” she said. But she knew she loved him, and when he hung up the phone, she told him she’d be happy to be his wife.
They married on March 31, 1967. “Folks said we were crazy,” she said. “We ended up with three sets of twins because so many of our kids were the same age.”
Six months after their wedding they moved to a bigger house. This was a good thing because their “Cheaper by the Dozen” story turned into a baker’s dozen with the birth of their son Ryan in 1968.
Darlene stayed home to manage their busy brood. It was more than a full-time job. “We had a big dining room table,” she said. “At dinnertime we served from the stove.”
She laughed. “Christmas is something I work on 12 months a year!”
The years passed in a blur of child-centered activities, and while they weren’t able to get out much, Mel said that was OK, they simply liked being together.
“The last 30 years have been ‘our time,’ ” Darlene said.
Mel retired from the school district in 1982, and they bought a cabin at Newman Lake. When they decided to sell it, they took a job managing a small apartment complex near Providence Sacred Heart Hospital.
With a stunning view of the city as a backdrop, the couple reflected on their 45 years together.
At last count they had 49 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren but Darlene said, “Truly, we stopped counting!”
The admiration and respect she feels for her husband is obvious. “Mel is everyone’s best friend – he does anything that anyone has a need for. He has more knowledge about repairing anything that needs to be fixed, so he is always being called on to make someone’s life better.”
He shrugged off her praise. “I just like doing things for people – always have.”
Darlene said, “Our marriage was first a friendship. We weren’t trying to impress each other.”
Mel grinned. “There was a certain chemistry involved. We were very good friends …” he paused and raised his eyebrows. “But we became even closer.”
They’re glad they gave love a second chance and even more glad they clung to each other during the crazy years of child-rearing. They’re reaping the rewards of that devotion.
“You’d think with 13 kids there’d be 13 reasons you don’t want to make this commitment,” Darlene said. “For us it turned out to be 13 reasons to keep that commitment.”