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Don, Ellen Willms celebrating 60 years together

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Fayette Faces

By Panzi Blackwell

Sixty years ago, newlyweds Don and Ellen Willms spent their first Thanksgiving together in Seattle, Wash., where Don was stationed in the Navy.


They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on Aug. 22 with family and friends. A charming poem was written for the occasion, hitting some highlights of their long life together.
Don and Ellen shared some “between-the-lines” happenings, including many moves, in their lives of loving devotion and commitment to one another. And they are still giving thanks for their blessings, their family and, especially, for one another.  
High School Sweethearts
They remember their first date very well – Don was a junior and Ellen was a freshman.
It was in October 1946, and he invited her to go on a hayride.
“It was an FFA hayride, the ag boys, at Gurtners’, and Lloyd Gurtner drove the horses that pulled the wagon,” Don said.
There was never any doubt, by either one, that they were meant for each other. They were engaged in April 1950. Romantic down-on-his-knees proposal? Don laughed.
“No, we had gone together too long for that … five years.”  There was no need, they both knew they were meant for each other and knew they would marry someday.
The U.S. Navy Beckons
Don enlisted in the Navy in January 1951 and was in boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center at Chicago. Ellen said she and “Granny” (Don’s mother) went to visit him while he had a 12-hour liberty. Don was then sent to Seattle, Wash., in March of that year.
The Beginning of a Life Together
Don and Ellen were married on Aug. 22, 1951, at the First Christian Church parsonage, attended by Bruno and Ginny Cortelloni, Ellen’s cousins.
One week later, the newlyweds went to Seattle, where they rented a basement apartment.
“Tomorrow we go looking for a job for you”…
…were Don’s words to his young bride, because she was so homesick.
“I cried, oh, I cried,” Ellen said “I knew I couldn’t get back home. I got a job at F.W. Woolworth dime store, and that took care of it.”
She later worked as a secretary in a General Insurance building. “We couldn’t afford to get her back home; she would have had to hitchhike,” Don said.
They set out for housing near the naval base in Seattle and moved to Radford Drive.
“We got a house full of furniture for $100, and we didn’t have to buy a refrigerator or a stove – they were furnished,” Ellen said. Don estimated it was closer to $125, and recalled that they got a television set later.
“It was tough making it,” Don said. “I was only making $97 a month and she would get $37 of it from the Navy. It was tight, but we made it.”
Ellen added, “After I got the job, I was making $25 a week, and that was buying the groceries.
“So we saved some Navy money. We actually saved money. When he was home, we stayed home; we didn’t go anywhere.”
“I had to stay on board every fourth night,” he said.
Ellen didn’t remember being afraid to stay alone at the time.
“But it would be a lot different now,” she said. “I didn’t have air conditioning, and I had to sleep with my bedroom window open and no screen.”  
“We didn’t have a church there,” Ellen said. “We would go to the Navy base to church. We would walk about a mile or half a mile, and I wore high heels. I don’t know why I wore high heels.”
Ellen got sick and the doctor thought she had appendicitis. “No, she’s fine. She’s just pregnant” was the diagnosis.
Another Move, and Another, Another, Another and Yet Another
In January-March, Don was transferred to Whidby Island in Oak Harbor, in the northwest corner of the United States.
He hitchhiked 90 miles to get home on the weekends. Ellen was pregnant with Duane.
While he was on Whidby Island, Ellen lived with the Jim Houser family in Seattle. Later, they were able to get housing in Whidby Island. The Navy moved 200 new trailers on Whidby Island, and they got their own trailer. They bought a bassinet for the new baby, Duane, who was born in August 1953 on Whidby Island.
Ellen made friends with four ladies on the island and they still communicate.
Two months later, Don went to Okinawa for six months, and Ellen returned to Brownstown with her mother, dad and Ginny Cortelloni.
Don returned to the United States in June 1954, bought a new 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air, turquoise and ivory in color, for $1,750, and they both went back to Whigby Island.
“I ordered it from overseas,” he said.
“And his dad and I went and picked it up,” Ellen said. “The same car now sells for about $20,000,” Don mused.
In November 1954, Don was discharged and came home to Brownstown to farm with his dad.
A year later, they moved to an apartment in Decatur. Don was working for General Electric. In June 1957, they bought a house on Sickles Drive in Decatur for $12,600.
In August 1959, their daughter, “Trish,” was born.
Don began working for Illinois Power in Decatur in April 1964, and Ellen got a job with the Decatur School District, where she worked from 1967 until 1976, when they moved back to Brownstown.
Don transferred with Illinois Power and Ellen began working for the Vandalia School District. Don retired from Illinois Power in 1990, and Ellen retired in 1994.
And Now
The Willmses returned home to Brownstown to help his mother after the death of his father, and when Duane and Trish were still in school.
The moving over, they have lived for 36 years and are well-settled-in on Don’s family homeplace, in the house he was born in.
It was built in 1897, when his dad was a young boy. The old log house his father was born in still stands on the property, but is well-protected, as the barn was built around it.
Duane and his wife, Laura, live in Brownstown. Trish and her husband, Wyatt Sager, live in Beardstown. The Willmses have five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Duane now operates family dairy business that has passed down generations. However, Don gets up about 5 a.m. every day and helps with the chores. Don and Duane   named it HarFan Dairy for Harry and Fannie Willms, Don’s parents.
Don and Ellen have always attended church together, even before they were married.
“We would go every Sunday night and then go to the Toot’n’Tell’em in Vandalia and have a milkshake,” Ellen said.
They are still active, working members of  First Christian Church of Brownstown, and believe in helping others. They enjoy having a cup of cappuccino together in their cheery kitchen … and they still hold hands on occasion.