He saw her reflection in a mirror in an English class at Harbor College in San Pedro, California, and was smitten.
“I saw this little sweater girl in the mirror,” Jerry Gendreau recalled. “I asked her out to lunch.”
But long before that fateful first date in 1959, Jerry knew what he wanted in a wife and family. He wanted everything he didn’t have when growing up on dairy farms in Western Washington.
His parents divorced and his mother took his brother and moved to California. Jerry stayed with his dad who soon remarried.
“Dad married a woman who hated my guts,” Jerry said.
At the age 9, he began spending most of his time working on dairy farms and sleeping in the barns where he worked. In the winter, he’d move back home. As soon as he graduated from high school, he hitchhiked to California.
“Unfortunately, they didn’t need any milkers in L.A.,” he said.
So, one day in 1953, he walked into a post office and joined the Marines. Soon after that he was sent to Korea.
“I spent 30 days on a troop ship to get to Korea,” said Jerry.
When he got out of the service he decided to use his G.I. Bill to attend Harbor College, and that’s where he spotted Ninna Petrone.
In addition to asking her out to lunch, he offered to carry her books. She accepted both offers.
They drove to the Hot and Tot restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway. When Jerry got up to pay, he discovered he’d left his wallet at home.
“I left her there as hostage while I went to get my wallet,” he recalled.
“It’s been downhill ever since,” she teased.
She’d just turned 18, and forgotten wallet aside, she was impressed by the 25-year-old Marine.
“I was a bit concerned that he was older, but not so concerned to not go out with him again,” she said. “His manners impressed me, and his vocabulary was different from the younger group.”
“He actually HAD a vocabulary.”
Jerry often ate dinner with the family and out of gratitude he painted their house for her dad. Her parents weren’t too worried about the relationship because they had a chaperone.
“When we went on dates we had to take her little sister,” Jerry said.
That’s not to say the courtship was smooth sailing. Ninna did all the cooking, cleaning and laundry for her family, and her mother didn’t want to give up her household help.
“Her mother was against Ninna getting married,” Jerry explained.
But one evening he took her to a nearby park and proposed.
“It was dark, so she wouldn’t go into the park with me, so I proposed on the curb under a streetlight.”
They married in San Pedro on Sept. 4, 1960.
Ninna worked for Starkist Tuna, but Jerry’s job at Shell Chemical ended when the plant shut down. He looked for steady work, finally joining the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Daughter Monique was born in 1961, followed by son Mike in 1964.
As the Watts riots raged in Los Angeles, Ninna worried for her husband’s safety.
“I never knew if he was going to come home,” she recalled. “I used to see him on TV during the riots. I told him, I’ll do whatever you want, I just want you to come home to the kids.”
After nine years with the sheriff’s department, Jerry began considering a different kind of future.
“We used to go to a little resort on Shasta Lake,” he recalled. “We’d lie under the pines and think, this is the life.”
They began looking for a small resort to buy. Son Craig arrived in 1969, about the time the Gendreaus discovered the Shore Acres Resort in Loon Lake, Washington, was for sale. They bought the resort and embarked on a new adventure.
Jerry refurbished all the cabins and the store, and built new docks, but found it difficult to make a living just 90 days of the year.
“We sold it four years later,” he recalled. “We knew nothing about running a resort or a business.”
They purchased an older home in Deer Park, which Jerry completely gutted and redid.
Ninna had taken job at a local dentist office.
“I’d come home and find another wall knocked down,” she said.
But the home they shared for 42 years became a showplace with beautiful gardens and grounds. Knowing his wife’s fascination with the Victorian era, Jerry crafted an elegant parlor where she hosted Victorian Teas.
“Monique helped her with the teas,” said Jerry. “I did the dishes.”
In addition, to his never ending home-improvement projects, Jerry worked for the Washington Department of Transportation for 27 years. He retired at 67, and Ninna retired at 65. Five years ago, they downsized and moved to San Souci in west Spokane.
They say one of the secrets to their 60-year union is that they do everything together including volunteer work. They were active in the Masonic fraternity and Shriners hospital, and for many years they volunteered at the VA hospital.
“We’ve always been supportive of each other,” said Jerry. “I told the kids, ‘This is not a democracy. This is a monarchy. When I’m not here Mom’s in charge.’”
He wishes he’d been less strict with the kids, but the Marine way of life was his only model for parenting.
“The blessing is today they all love me,” he said.
And that includes his bride.
“I’d made up my mind that if I got a wife I was going to treat her right,” Jerry said. “”She’s a princess of a wife and mother.”
Ninna, 79, says Jerry, 86, has mellowed over the years.
“He’s now the chief cook and bottle washer,” she said. “Marriage takes work. I learned to speak up when I wanted something. It doesn’t seem like we’ve been married 60 years. It went so fast.”
Her husband nodded.
“It’s been a good ride,” he said.
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