When Bill and Irene Zimmer met on a blind date, they already had a lot in common.
Bill, a senior at Gonzaga University at the time, had grown up on a farm near the Pend Oreille River. Irene, a nursing student at Sacred Heart Hospital, was raised on a farm in Chewelah, Wash. In addition, they both were staunch Catholics.
When mutual friends set them up in January 1951, Bill said, “I was impressed enough to follow up with another date.”
Irene smiled. “I thought he was very handsome with that jet black hair.”
Ruefully running his hand across his now gray locks, Bill said, “Well. I used to have jet black hair.”
They graduated that spring, and Bill proposed by moonlight as they sat in his 1940 Plymouth and gazed at the Spokane River. However, he’d received a draft deferment while in school, and he was certain he’d be called at any time to do his part during the Korean War.
So, although he had his education degree, Bill didn’t want to take a job with a school only to have to leave. Instead he worked at Fairchild Air Force Base and at a paper mill.
The call from the draft board never came and the couple married Dec. 27, 1951.
Wanting to serve his country, Bill said, “I finally volunteered for the Army.”
When he was sent to Camp Roberts, Calif., for basic training, Irene drove down with friends and found a place to stay. She worked as a baby sitter for room and board. “I could see her on weekends,” Bill said.
One day Bill saw a notice on a bulletin board that said, “Are you a college grad?” The Army was looking for men to serve in counter-intelligence, so Bill applied. “I’m glad I did,” he said. “The outfit I went through basic with went straight into combat in Korea.”
He and Irene drove that 1940 Plymouth to Baltimore, where he’d been sent for further training.
It proved to be an adventurous cross-country drive. “That car burned oil like crazy. I never changed the oil, I just carried a case of oil and added it,” Bill said.
In addition, the pipe that connected to the gas tank was loose, and as they drove through pouring rain in the Midwest, mud splashed into the tank. When the car died, they were able to push it to a service station. As Bill attempted his repairs, gas hit the hot manifold and flamed up in his face.
Irene saw what was happening as she waited at a nearby store. Grabbing some flour, she rushed to her husband’s aid and doused the flames.
“I arrived in Baltimore with my eyebrows burned off and burn lines on my face,” said Bill.
The Plymouth finally gave up the ghost for good in Baltimore, so they bought a new car before returning to Spokane.
Leaving his pregnant wife at home, Bill traveled to Tokyo, where he spent the remainder of his enlistment. In April 1953, he got a letter from Irene, informing him of the birth of their son. It would be nine months before he got to meet him.
After returning stateside, Bill was eager to start his teaching career. He accepted a job in tiny Glenwood, Wash. “I wanted to teach in a small school, and boy did I!” he said.
He taught seventh- and eighth-grade reading, high school English and woodshop, and served as the baseball coach. “I’d never played an organized game of baseball in my life,” Bill said.
While in Glenwood another son arrived and Irene had her hands full – but not as full as they would get. The couple went on to have 10 children in all, including a set of twin girls.
From Glenwood they moved to Sprague, Wash., and finally back to Spokane. Bill worked at Lewis and Clark High School as teacher, counselor and assistant principal for 19 years. All told, he spent 32 years with Spokane Public Schools, serving in a variety of roles.
They settled in Spokane Valley where Irene cared for their large brood. Feeding them was a full-time job.
“We always had a garden,” she said. “I remember when planning meals, my goal was to keep the meat portion under $3.”
And family dinners were sacrosanct. “We insisted we all sat down at the table together,” Bill said.
As the children grew Irene stayed busy serving as a Girl Scout troop leader and helping in her children’s schools. Her nursing expertise came in handy during school immunizations, too.
She said, “It was wonderful to have that experience raising my kids.”
Bill retired in 1986, but the couple didn’t slow down. They took a long driving trip to Alaska with no set itinerary. When they returned to Spokane Valley, Bill was asked to serve on the West Valley School Board. “Seventeen years, later, I retired,” he said, grinning.
While Bill stayed busy with the school board, Irene volunteered with Meals on Wheels for seven years. “Two friends were my co-drivers,” she said.
A family tragedy would plunge her into a new activity. In 1981, their daughter Connie was killed by a drunken driver. She was 24.
“I can’t imagine anything tougher,” said Bill, shaking his head. “If we didn’t have our faith, I don’t know how we could have gotten through it.”
Irene channeled her grief into action and launched the first local chapter of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).
The couple still loves traveling and between trips they enjoy volunteering at the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum.
They feel their shared backgrounds and interests have contributed to the longevity of their marriage. However, Bill said, “Doing things together is extremely important, but I also think it’s important for couples to have individual interests.”
Turning to Irene, he smiled. “She’s a very caring and supportive person. I couldn’t have asked for more.”
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