Special publication: Looking back on decades of love | News

Pictured: Shirley and Doug Walker on their wedding day.

On the evening of March 13, 1965, at a bar in Ventura, California, Shirley Paden was out to have a good time.

What she didn’t know was that she was about to have the dance of her life.

“She was dancing, and right after the dance, we hit it off,” her husband Doug Walker said. “That was the start.”

Doug said he knew right away that Shirley was the one.

“I haven’t said much about it for another one or two dates,” he said. “It took me a while to convince her.

“My boyfriend, he thought I was crazy,” he added.

Shirley, too, was hard to convince.

“When he first asked me to marry him, I said ‘no, go away,'” she said.

Shirley admitted it was a test, and by sending him back he could determine if there was any doubt in his mind that he wanted to marry her.

Doug returned a month later, true to his love for her. The couple married in July. Eighteen days later he left for Vietnam.

With a chasm of geographic distance to separate them, Doug said he made Shirley promise to write to him every day. And she did.

The Chronicle asked the couple what they liked most about each other.

“Beautiful, smart, as caring as a person can be. I loved her from the start,” Doug said.

Shirley and Doug

Shirley and Doug Walker pose for a photo outside The Chronicle office in St. Helens.

Doug and Shirley opened up about the magic that keeps them together after 56 years of marriage.

“I think actually for me that’s all he does,” Shirley said.

“We have a deep respect for each other, personally and emotionally,” Doug replied.

For St. Helens residents Dena and Joe Nelson, the foundation of a 60-year marriage began with a chance encounter and a game of pinochle.

Dena and Joe were both 20 in 1962, living in Tacoma and attending the University of Puget Sound when they met through mutual friends.

“We basically met in the student union building over dinner,” Joe said.

“He asked me out for a coffee date, and there was an art exhibit on campus,” Dena added, reminiscing about the moment that changed her life forever. “I love art and he wanted to go to the art show. He was the first guy I dated who was really honest and loved art.

“We then sat down for coffee and I felt at home,” Dena said.

Joe told The Chronicle it took a cascade of moments, rather than a single moment, to realize Dena was “the one.”

“The moment?” says Joe. “Well, I think my moment was before because she used to tease me all the time. I wanted to date her, but she went out with someone else, so I was really jealous .

“Finally, I asked for a date, so it was like, ‘Okay. We can do this.’ So we did. We pretty much stayed together after that.

Joe and Dena

The Nelsons of St. Helens say respect, patience and laughter are the secrets to a lasting marriage.

Joe said his and Dena’s differences were part of the glue that held them together, but more importantly, “I like him. I don’t just like him, I like him too.

Joe earned his master’s degree, but Dena had interrupted his studies after marrying Joe. Despite their whirlwind romance, Dena returned to school ten years later to complete her social science degree and took a job as an event planner, organizing trade shows and conventions.

In 1972, Joe accepted a position in a laboratory, and the Nelsons moved to Columbia County.

Dena, a city girl at heart, struggled with the transition at first, but somehow she stayed and they raised their children – all boys – in St. Helens.

These boys then had children, also boys. The couple have since welcomed a great-grandchild as well as step-grandchildren into the family fold.

Joe and Dena Nelson are now 79 and retired. They tolerate each other’s quirks—Dena is a late sleeper, according to Joe, and Dena swears that no one can break Joe’s focus when he’s focused—and celebrate each other’s strengths.

More importantly, Joe raises Dena when she needs him, and she returns the favor.

When it was discovered Dena had brain tumors, without hesitation Joe took over the household chores and continued to care for Dena.

“We’re a team,” Joe said, which Dena claimed.

“I think that’s one of the philosophies that makes a marriage last, it’s your teamwork,” she said.

The couple have traveled a lot together and made memories over the years, but for Dena and Joe, two specific memories come to mind.

“Sitting on a veranda in Hawaii and having breakfast at sunrise,” Joe said.

“There are so many,” Dena replied. “I think my fondest memory was waking up the morning after our wedding and we were together. It was such a comfort.

Jacob L. Thornton