Popping the Question Again – 54 Years Later

This started out to be a story about a neighborhood reunion.

But it became something more.

The neighborhood reunion was last weekend. It was the first get-together in 16 years for the “South of the Tracks Kids.” The neighborhood where they grew up, in the 1940s and ’50s, was bordered by Ninth, 16th, the Boise River and Grand Avenue. It was the only neighborhood in Boise with any significant ethnic diversity, about half black and half white, and one of the poorest.

“We were poor, but we didn’t know it,” said Lois (Petrie) Kerr, one of about 50 who attended the reunion. “All of us kids had a home to go to, clothes to wear and enough to eat. Every house had a hedge, fences, flowers and a garden. People worked hard and were well respected, and we all stuck up for each other.”

“There was no such thing as segregation,” Jack Wheeler added. “If somebody needed help, we all helped them. It didn’t matter if you were black or white. We were family.”

Wheeler remembers swimming the river to ride horses on an island in what is now Ann Morrison Park. Neighbors wistfully recalled the long-gone Pearl Grocery and Grand Avenue Market, the Riverside Softball Park, an open-air dance hall (now the Mardi Gras) and the imposing locomotive roundhouse on 16th Street.

“You had to hang your laundry out early in the morning because a train came by every morning at 11,” Kerr recalled. “If you didn’t bring the laundry in by then, you got cinders from the locomotive all over your clean clothes.”

How much has the old neighborhood changed? Kerr’s family lived near the corner of 12th and River Streets – on an acre and a half where her parents raised hybrid irises. The neighborhood was almost entirely residential, no commercial or office buildings like those there today at all. There were six houses on one side of S. 12th Street, nine on the other. Lots of vacant land, lots of places for kids to play.

Kerr and Wheeler were kids when they fell in love. She was 16; he was 17. She still remembers the day when he asked her to marry him and put an engagement ring on her finger: Christmas Eve, 1959.

“I was crazy about him,” she said. “We were crazy about each other.”

But the marriage wasn’t to be. Her father not only didn’t approve of it; he absolutely wouldn’t allow it. Fathers did things like that more in those days.

“He said we were too young and that Jack was going to leave in the Navy and meet a thousand girls,” she said. “We were heartbroken. I was so mad at my father that I went to Virginia for a year and stayed with my brother. He was in the Navy there and had an apartment.”

Disappointed as they were, the young lovers respected her father’s wishes. Wheeler joined the Navy and served as a radioman and crypto repairman aboard an aircraft carrier. Then he returned to Boise, met and married another woman and spent most of his working years at a tire store and an automotive shop. His wife died two years ago. They were married 43 years.

“But I never forgot Lois,” he said. “For all those 43 years that I was married, I held onto my picture of her.”

Kerr stayed with her brother in Virginia long enough for her anger to cool  and returned to Boise as well.

“You know how it is,” she said. “You meet someone else and end up married.”

She was married twice, had three children, lived in several states. Her second husband died in 2006.

But she never completely got over Wheeler

Her father apparently didn’t, either.

“He told me I had to go to Boise to find Jack and apologize for him for what he did,” she said. “He died 30 days later.”

On May 16 – the 19th anniversary of her father’s death – she came back to Boise and found Jack. And after all those years, the spark still hadn’t died.

“He walked up, put his arms around me and kissed me,” she said. “It went right down to my toenails.”

Then her onetime fiancé did something she wasn’t expecting. He told her he’d loved her all his life, and proposed for the second time.

As you’ve probably guessed, she said yes.

And so, at ages 70 and 71 respectively, high school sweethearts Lois Petrie and Jack Wheeler finally were married. I think it’s fair to say that the wedding, a week ago yesterday, was the highlight of the South of the Tracks Kids reunion. Relatives came from as far away as Hawaii. The ceremony was held in the parking lot of the Humphreys Diabetes Center, which not coincidentally is the site of Wheeler’s boyhood home. He lived at what was then 520 S.12th Street; she lived across the street at 525 S. 12th.

At the reunion picnic last Sunday, he couldn’t stop smiling.

“It took me 54 years to catch up with her,” he said as he posed for a  picture between his new bride and her sister, Pennie Smith. “I got the girl of my dreams and I gained a sister. I’ve always wanted a sister. I couldn’t ask for more.”

Maybe it’s true that it’s never too late. Married over half a century after they wanted to be, the former South of the Tracks Kids have found happiness made sweeter by the long wait for it.

“I couldn’t ask for more,” Wheeler said.

His bride summed it up well:

“We’re recycled teenagers.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in the Idaho Statesman and is posted the following Mondays on http://www.woodwardblog.com. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.


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