Decades of devotion: DeBoers celebrate 73 years of marriageSIBLEY, Iowa — Bill sits in a wheelchair. Nelva uses a walker to get around. He can’t hear very well. She does all the listening and most of the talking. But after more than seven decades of marriage, Bill and Nelva DeBoer can communicate with a look or a touch.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
SIBLEY, Iowa — Bill sits in a wheelchair. Nelva uses a walker to get around.
He can’t hear very well. She does all the listening and most of the talking.
But after more than seven decades of marriage, Bill and Nelva DeBoer can communicate with a look or a touch.
They celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary on Monday at the Sibley Nursing and Rehabilitation facility.
Bill and Nelva were seniors in high school — 17 and 18 respectively — when they married.
“We met in Hull (Iowa),” explained Nelva, “at Western Christian High School. We graduated from there, and all our children went there, too.
“I went two years, he went three years.”
Nelva had grown up 150 miles away in Minnesota — Prinsburg — while Bill’s family lived in northwest Iowa.
“My folks were really poor,” she related. “I had an aunt who was living in Hull, who made a living boarding children, but I worked for my board. My sister and brother went there, too.”
Memories of those high school days are faint, but Bill may have caught Nelva’s eye because he was an athlete.
“He was a basketball player, and I went to most of the games,” she said, adding that their three sons followed in Bill’s footsteps on the basketball court. “He didn’t have much money, so if we wanted a treat, I had to buy. My folks gave me some spending money — not much.”
Their wedding took place at the home of Bill’s parents, on the day of his mother’s 40th birthday — March 22, 1937.
“My folks were so poor, so my grandma bought me a dress,” she recalled. “I think it was red, or maybe blue. I think he had a suit. My parents, brother and two sisters were all there. … We got married in the evening and then went sledding.”
The following day, the wedding party traveled to Prinsburg — in the middle of a blizzard.
“On the way home, I don’t know how many people we all had in the car. We had to get out and push sometimes. … There was no heating system in the car, and it took us all day to get to Prinsburg — it was that bad.”
The newlyweds returned to northwest Iowa and began their life together.
“We lived with Bill’s folks,” Nelva said. “They had a grocery store in Sibley, and I worked there after we got married. But Bill didn’t like the grocery business.”
Eventually, Nelva went to work at the Red Owl grocery store, a job she continued for at least 25 years. She also did housework for other people. Bill became “the Watkins man,” selling Watkins products door to door and farm to farm.
The DeBoers had four children — three sons and one daughter — all five years apart: Charles (Esther), now deceased; Jan (Connie); Willis (Linda); and Glenda (Larry Reinke). Over the years, their family has expanded to include 11 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
Bill and Nelva both worked hard, he on the road covering a wide territory for Watkins in his fully stocked station wagon, she in the grocery store, cleaning and ironing for other people and making a home for their children.
Eventually, problems with his hearing and sight forced Bill’s retirement from the Watkins company. When hearing aids failed to correct his hearing issues, he became a test subject for the University of Iowa in Iowa City and received one of the first cochlear implants. Unfortunately, the implant is now out of date and cannot be repaired.
The DeBoers became custodians for their church, a duty they fulfilled for 49 years.
“I wanted to make it 50 years, but he wanted to be done,” regretted Nelva.
Bill found enjoyment in fishing and reading. In her spare hours, Nelva baked, gardened and did needlework.
“We all have full towel sets that grandma embroidered,” noted granddaughter Nancy Wesselink. “I don’t know about the other granddaughters, but I learned that — the needlework — from her.”
When the grandchildren came along, there was a drawer with a special stash of candy just for them, and there were always freshly baked cookies, too.
“I made the best chocolate chip cookies,” boasted Nelva.
“And she made pie every week,” added daughter-in-law Esther DeBoer. “There was pie every Sunday. She was an excellent pie baker.”
Seven years ago, Bill became a resident of Sibley Nursing & Rehab. Nelva lived in a house 11 blocks away. No matter the weather, she walked that distance every day — sometimes three times a day — to visit her husband.
Nelva also continued to work, cleaning houses, up until the day a fall prompted her own move to the facility four and a half years ago.
Now they both live in a small room at the nursing home, where they eagerly await visits from their children and grandchildren. After a lifetime of hard work, it’s hard to sit and wait, admitted Nelva, obviously chafing at the constraints of her physical infirmity.
But Bill and Nelva have each other — and that’s the way it’s been for 73 years.