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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kettel Love Story: After more than 70 years, the chemistry is still there

By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

After 70 years of marriage, Ernie and JoAnn Kettel’s chemistry is undeniable.

In 1949 they met in a chemistry lab at Washington State College (now WSU). Actually, they’d briefly met a few months before when they both hitched a ride from the West Side of the state to Pullman.

“The problem is the minute he gets in a car, he falls asleep,” JoAnn said.

He was wide awake in that chem class, though.

“You want to see a baseball game with me?” asked Ernie. “I’ll help you do your lab work.”

JoAnn welcomed the help and the date.

“As we left the chemistry lab and walked to the stadium, she reached over and took my hand,” Ernie recalled.

He sighed and grinned.

“It felt so good! I knew she was the one.”

Raised on a dairy farm in Sequim, Washington, he was on his way to becoming a veterinarian. JoAnn had grown up in Arlington, Washington, and chose Washington State College over University of Washington because she wanted to go to a smaller school.

After time apart during summer break, she eagerly looked for him at the fall mixer.

“When Ernie walked in, a light shone in my head and I thought, ‘He’s the one!’ ” she said.

In their Deer Park living room, she smiled at her husband.

She completed her degree in 1950 and left for a dietitian internship in Rochester, New York. The separation was difficult for them.

“He wrote to me every single day,” said JoAnn. “I wrote to him once a week.”

One evening in March, her housemother told JoAnn she needed to be home by 7 p.m.

“She said, ‘You’re going to get a phone call,’ ” recalled JoAnn.

The phone rang promptly at 7. It was Ernie.

“Will you marry me?” he asked.

Out came the housemother with a big box of red roses and a tiny box with a ring in it.

Long-distance calls were expensive, so they just had three minutes.

“I spent three minutes crying and saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ ” JoAnn said.

Decades later, her eyes once again filled with tears.

“It still shakes me up.”

Ernie had written to the housemother to arrange everything. He sent the ring in the mail, and she picked out the roses.

“Roses have always been our thing,” he said. “We grow a lot of them.”

They married in Seattle on Nov. 23, 1951, during Ernie’s Thanksgiving break from school. The day after the wedding they packed their car with wedding gifts and headed home to Pullman.

“We got caught in a snowstorm on the pass and Ernie had to pull out all the wedding gifts to get to the chains,” JoAnn said.

They kept their spirits up by singing, “Oh, we ain’t got a barrel of money. Maybe we’re ragged and funny. But we’ll travel along, singin’ a song side by side.”

In Pullman, JoAnn put her degree to use in the dining hall while Ernie finished school. Her job ended when one of the cooks told her not to take the stairs two at a time since she was pregnant.

JoAnn laughed. “That’s how I realized I was five months pregnant.”

Their son, Steve, arrived in August 1952. In 1953, they moved to Deer Park, where Ernie worked with a friend who’d purchased a veterinary practice.

Her first sight of the town failed to impress JoAnn.

“I was a city girl. I thought Deer Park was dismal and dreary.”

But the small community became their lifelong home.

A second son, Bryan, was born in 1954, followed by David in 1957 and Randy in 1959.

“I had a lot of fun with those boys,” JoAnn said.

In 1962, a daughter, Teresa, completed their family.

“I was thrilled,” said JoAnn.

Ernie got a call that the baby had already been born.

“They told me I had a daughter, and I told them to go back and check again,” he said.

The couple plunged into community life. Ernie served on the city council, the planning commission and the school board. JoAnn served on the PTA, was den mother for Cub Scouts and for 62 years has been a member of PEO AW.

Both were active in the Lutheran church, and their shared faith became the cornerstone of their family life.

“Church was very important to our family – it bound us together,” Ernie said.

Every morning they had breakfast and Bible study together, and most evenings they had dinner together as well.

In the early years of building his veterinary practice, Ernie spent a lot of time on the road visiting multiple dairy farms across the area.

“There were close to 100 back in the ’50s,” he recalled. “Now, there are only three.”

When Teresa started school, JoAnn went back to college to renew her dietitian credentials. Then she worked with nursing homes in north Spokane, setting up menus and training kitchen staff. Eventually, she developed a curriculum which she taught at Spokane Community College for several years.

After 40 years, Ernie retired in 1994, and for the next 20 years, the couple wintered in Arizona. They enjoyed traveling, including trips to New Zealand and Europe. But their most enduring memories were made at their family cabin at Loon Lake.

Asked if they had ever imagined celebrating their 70th anniversary, Ernie, 93, shook his head.

“We used to wonder if we’d see the year 2000,” he said.

His bride, 94, is 10 months older than him.

“I’m a Cougar,” he said, chuckling. “I don’t think we’ve ever been apart more than six or seven days in 70 years.”

Their foundation of faith and commitment has never wavered.

“We’ve taken care of each other,” said JoAnn.

Cindy Hval can be reached at