In the eighth grade Beryl Lester wrote love notes to Mel Fitzpatrick, even though she’d never met him.
Technically, they weren’t from her.
“I wrote them for my friend, Shirley, because she liked him,” Beryl said.
The romance between Mel and Shirley never got off the ground, which was a good thing, because when he met Beryl at church in Sunnyside, Washington, in 1950, sparks flew.
“He was friendly and closer to my age than some of the other boys,” she said.
Mel was 15, she 14. He didn’t have a car or a driver’s license, and her folks didn’t have a phone, so if he wanted to see her he had to walk or ride his bike 2½ miles to her house.
“She wasn’t allowed out after 10 p.m., but I could go see her every day,” Mel said.
However, when she invited him over for Sunday dinner, he balked.
“I told her I’d probably knock over her dad’s glass of milk or something,” he said.
Beryl persuaded him, and he sat next to her father at the table.
“Sure enough, I knocked his glass over, and milk spilled all over his plate!” Mel recalled. “I was so embarrassed.”
Her father just kept eating and never said a word.
It didn’t take long for Mel to decide he wanted to marry Beryl.
“She was a good girl, and her folks treated me well,” he said, grinning. “And I occupied all her time.”
Neither of them remembers a proposal, but when she was 15, they drove to Grandview, Washington, and picked out a ring.
“I think it was mutual admiration, and it was accepted that we’d get married,” Beryl said.
Both sets of parents had to go to Yakima with them to sign for their marriage license.
“Everyone was quitting school and getting married,” he said. “When we quit school and got married, five other couples did, too.”
Beryl felt she was mature enough at 15. She’d cared of her younger brother for years.
“I knew how to take care of a baby, and I knew how to cook,” she said.
On Jan. 21, 1951, at 16, and 15, they married.
“We had a big church wedding with 200 guests,” Beryl said.
Her husband grinned.
“One reason we stayed married so long is we had two preachers do the wedding.”
There was no honeymoon.
“There was nowhere to go, and we didn’t have a car,” Mel explained.
Beryl kept house, and Mel worked at the bowling alley setting pins and in nearby orchards trimming trees.
Thus began 70 years of frequent moves, thrilling adventures, and lasting love.
In July 1951, they welcomed daughter, Deana. Beryl went into labor after an afternoon of jack rabbit hunting.
“I named her Deana because I named my doll Deana, and I liked the name,” Beryl said.
The fee for the delivery and required three-day hospital stay? Seventy-five dollars. Still, that was a lot for two teenagers living on one income.
In October 1952, son, Melvin Jr. joined the family, Mel senior was working the graveyard shift on the McNary Dam, and the family was living in Umatilla, Oregon.
When Beryl told him her water broke, he hustled her and Deana to the car, to get her to Sunnyside, Washington, for the birth.
“There wasn’t a bridge across the Columbia at the time,” he said. “Just a ferry.”
They arrived just as the ferry set sail.
Mel sprang into action.
“I blinked my lights and yelled, ‘My wife’s having a baby!’ “
The ferry captain turned the boat around and allowed them to board.
Shortly after the birth of their son, Mel was laid off from his job at the dam. His sister in California told him there were plenty of jobs where she lived, so with $50 in his pocket, he and the family set off.
“We stopped in Riverside and sold my spare tire and wheel for $15, so I could buy milk for the babies,” Mel recalled.
He found work at a potato warehouse, unloading trucks filled with bags of spuds.
“By the time I got off work, my arms hurt so bad I could hardly stand it,” he said.
He was an 18-year-old father of two at the time, and asked if he could bring home the potatoes that fell on the ground.
“We had mashed potatoes and gravy for Christmas dinner that year,” Beryl said. “That’s all.”
Soon, they returned to Eastern Washington, and the farm work Mel knew so well.
Daughter Rejeana arrived in 1955. They were living in Lind, Washington, when son Doug completed the family. Beryl was cooking for a seven-man harvest crew when she went into labor.
“I was 21 when I had my last child and 34 when I became a grandmother,” she said.
In 1961, a new venture beckoned when Beryl’s brother asked them to go into business with him in Connecticut.
“He’d got a deal on an A&W restaurant,” Mel said. “But it didn’t work out.”
Mel, now an ironworker moved the family back to Sunnyside, where in 1969, fate intervened and altered his career path. The family owned several acres and some horses, and one of those horses reared up and kicked Mel in the head, permanently blinding him in the right eye. He decided a career change was in order and chose to study aviation mechanics at Spokane Community College.
The family moved to Spokane in 1970, where Mel pursued his new career, earning his pilot’s license along the way.
Both he and Beryl had always loved airplanes, and once he’d purchased his own Cessna, he encouraged his wife to get her license.
“I tried and tried to get her to take some lessons,” he said. “I wanted her to be able to land the plane if something happened to me, but she wouldn’t do it. Finally, I told her the only reason you won’t learn to fly is because you can’t.”
That did the trick.
She quickly earned her license and had her own plane. She even joined The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots, whose first president was Amelia Earhart.
Mel ended up teaching the same aviation mechanics course he’d graduated from at SCC for 21 years, and then worked in the college’s automotive parts department before retiring in 1999.
He also became an avid classic car buff, restoring many cars over the years. In their 70s the couple picked up motorcycle riding and went on many bike trips.
At 86, Mel is still working on airplanes and cars.
“I’ve always worked,” he said.
“We grew up together. We’ve always done everything together,” she said. “We had to depend on each other – there was no one else.”
When asked the secret to their 70-year union, Mel laughed and uttered two words: “Give in.”
And those love notes written to him by Beryl at another girl’s behest?
“I think we were married before I ever said anything about it,” she said, shrugging.
Mel squeezed her hand.
“She got ahold of me and never let go,” he said.
Beryl, 86, smiled.
“He’s tenderhearted,” she said. “He’s special.”
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