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Love Story: Handball hero gets the girl

Handball has played a pivotal role in Vince Slatt’s life. If not for his expertise at the game, he might never have married, Peggy, his wife of 70 years.

Vince Slatt and Peggy Hennessey grew up in Butte. He attended an all-boys high school; she went to an all-girls school. After graduation, Vince attended the University of Notre Dame and Peggy went to the University of St. Mary, in Leavenworth, Kansas.

In 1941, they were both home for the holidays. Several dances were held and Vince had his eye on Peggy. Unfortunately, so did his friend.

“We both wanted to take Peggy to a dance,” Vince recalled. “We didn’t want to flip a coin, so we played handball. I won, so I got to take her to the dance.”

One dance was all it took. Peggy laughed. “My mother said, ‘Oh, you would fall in love with a tango lizard,’ ” she said. She glanced at Vince and added, “He’s still a great dancer!”

Vince said she was no slouch on the dance floor, either. “She was a real good dancer; if I made a mistake she followed me,” he said.

By the time they both returned to their respective schools, a flame was lit that has burned brightly for seven decades.

They kept in touch by letter and telegram. Vince graduated from Notre Dame, class of 1943, with an engineering degree and shortly thereafter joined the Navy.

He didn’t discuss his decision with Peggy. “My brother had joined the Marines,” Vince said. “My other brother had joined the Navy. I wanted to serve my country.”

The Navy sent their new recruit to Cornell University to learn about diesel engines. “I was an electrical engineer,” Vince said. “I didn’t know anything about diesel engines. Then they sent me to submarine school to learn how to build subs.”

He learned enough to quickly be promoted from ensign to junior lieutenant and was stationed at the Boston Navy Yard. Somewhere along the way, he proposed to Peggy and she’d accepted. When asked if she thought long and hard about her decision to marry, she replied, “No. But I know I didn’t make a mistake.”

Peggy graduated from St. Mary’s with a degree in chemistry. They decided to marry at Notre Dame. “The war was on and transportation was difficult,” Vince said. “Notre Dame was halfway between Boston and Butte.”

But before the wedding came the question of where to live. Boston was bustling with sailors and married housing was hard to come by. Once again, handball played a role in the couple’s fate.

Vince played at the YMCA. One day he enjoyed a spirited game with a fellow. When they went to change afterward, Vince donned his uniform.

“The guy said, ‘You’re in the Navy! I want to do something for you. Is there anything you need?’ ” Vince recalled. “So I told him I’m getting married next week and I don’t have a place to live.”

It turns out the fellow had a furnished studio apartment. “He gave us the apartment and that’s where we lived for the duration of my service,” Vince said.

Vince and Peggy were married May 16, 1944, in the Log Chapel at Notre Dame. “They have a beautiful basilica,” Vince said. “But a real Notre Dame guy gets married in the Log Chapel.”

A black-and-white wedding photo shows the happy couple, Vince in his dress uniform and Peggy beaming in a beautiful white gown with pearls around her neck. At their downtown Spokane apartment, she gazed at the photo. “I had black hair then and now it’s I-don’t-know-what-color,” she said.

Vince rubbed his bald pate. “At least you’ve got your hair, Peg.”

After the wedding, the couple boarded a train for Boston. No honeymoon for them. Peggy shrugged. “The war was on.”

While in Boston, she gave birth to their first child, Phil. Not long afterward, Vince received his discharge papers. Peggy and the baby traveled to Butte, but Vince didn’t make it that far. He’d asked to be discharged out of Seattle. He caught a train there and headed for Montana.

“The train stopped in Spokane, so I got out and walked around,” Vince said. “I passed an electrical shop and went in and asked if they had a job opening.”

They did, and hired him immediately. He sent for his wife and son and the family settled near Gonzaga University, where they lived for 40 years.

He eventually took a job with Inland Power and Light, becoming a manager before retiring. “Nowadays they call them CEOs,” Vince said, smiling.

Peggy had her hands full with the birth of Mary, followed by Steve, Debbie, and Chris.

“We agreed when we got married that the boys would go to Notre Dame and the girls would go to St. Mary’s, and they did,” Vince said. Four grandchildren attended Notre Dame as well.

In addition to loyalty to his alma mater, Vince passed something else down to his five kids. “I taught them all to play handball,” he said.

When the Elks closed their building downtown, Vince was left without a nearby handball court, so he took up a new hobby. At 77, he ran his first Bloomsday.

Peggy shook her head. “I have no desire to run Bloomsday,” she said. But a large contingent of family travels to Spokane each year to accompany her husband during the race and Peggy waits outside their apartment to give him a kiss when he jogs by.

She’s eloquent and effusive in her praise for Vince. “He’s thoughtful and caring – the kind of man everyone wants for a husband,” she said.

“Aww, Peg,” he said, embarrassed.

“I’m just telling the truth,” she said. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but the downs never last.”

Vince knows he’s a fortunate man. “She gave up her career to care for me and the kids,” he said. “I couldn’t even boil an egg.”

His wife chuckled. “He’s lucky to have me, isn’t he?”

Thirty years ago, Vince began a romantic tradition. On the 16th of every month, he has a rose delivered to his bride. “Once, I was in the hospital, but Peters & Sons remembered and sent the rose for me,” he said.

Peggy glanced at the rose that had just been delivered that morning. She looked at Vince. “We are happy, aren’t we?” she asked. “We belong together.”

And Vince patted her hand. “That’s right, Peg,” he said. “That’s right.”