I didn’t write a column last week. I was busy helping to prepare an obituary for my wife, Joan, who died of cancer Oct. 27. That writing exercise and what I’m typing right now are not easy for me, but I’ll do my best to do justice to the memory of an amazing person who filled my life for the past 58 years.
What was it like being married to Joan for 58 years? Several people I’ve come across the past two weeks have posed that question. Last week, I ran into Sara Gamache, who had been one of Joan’s tennis buddies, and we both answered in unison: “Interesting.” It was indeed that. Never a dull moment with Joan, we both concluded.
I thought the same thing more than 59 years ago when I had my first date with Joan Rae Pflugrath in January 1960. She had come to Tracy from North Dakota in 1958, and half of the eighth grade boys at Senior Elementary School fell in love with the young, good-looking teacher.
It was later, in the fall of 1959, that I met her on a blind date. She wasn’t my date that evening, but we seemed more interested in talking to each other. It happens sometimes.
A few weeks after that, I ran into her in the Senior Elementary School multipurpose room, where I had gone to take some photos for the Press and she was there to hear the school orchestra, directed by Roberta McCaughey, in a holiday concert. Roberta was a veteran Tracy music teacher, from whom Joan was renting a room.
We decided to “have coffee” with Roberta after the concert ended, and wound up at what was for many years a traditional Tracy late-night snack-and-coffee spot — The Diner, now long gone but located in those days across 11th Street from the Tracy Inn.
It was one of those “interesting” coffee sessions with Joan and I becoming engaged in conversation once again, In the parking lot a few minutes later, Joan said she was leaving the next day to head to North Dakota with Don “Jug” and Donna Juelke for Christmas with her family. I can recall saying, “I’ll give you a call when you return.” Joan replied that would be great. “Mr. Not-So-Smooth” was making headway.
It was a few weeks later that it was “first date” night. I wanted to make a good impression, so I made reservations at what in those days was a popular out-of-town dinner spot, the Danville Hotel. It was classy enough to make that first impression, and the food was pretty good, too. Joan’s conversational skills and interest in current events, politics, entertainment and school happenings made for yet another interesting evening.
Afterwards, we went over to the Concord Inn for some dancing. But alas, that was not to be. As we were about to enter, we were asked for our IDs. And Joan suddenly realized she hadn’t brought her driver’s license with her. She was momentarily embarrassed when denied entry, but I told her it wasn’t a big deal, and we headed back to Tracy.
In Roberta McCaughey’s front room, the conversation continued. And we delved deeper into her childhood in North Dakota (and mine in Tracy — waaay out there in Parker Acres) and a whole bunch of other topics, including politics and happenings of the day.
Often, Joan, a mainstream Democrat, would lead off with a comment, and I, an inveterate counter-puncher (and today one of few moderate Republicans still around), would say something like, “Wait a minute. Where did you hear that stuff?” and so it went, back and forth. Many times, though, we found ourselves agreeing on principles, if not on specific ways of dealing with issues.
When it was time for me to leave, there was the traditional goodnight kiss (a peck in those days).
As I walked to my car, I said to myself, “Boy, that was really fun.” I was referring to the verbal give-and-take and not the peck.
I knew right then it wasn’t going to be one-date-and-I’m out. I was in it for the long haul; it turned out she was, too. We were married Dec. 21, 1960.
Unlike many households of today, when both husband and wife must have jobs to pay the mortgage and other living expenses, ours was a traditional marriage of the day. I worked at the Press, often in evenings, and Joan stayed home to take care of the house and raise our two daughters, Laurie and Meg. I never changed a diaper.
It was a division of duties that worked well for us because Joan was so good at being a mother and a household manager. Until she fell ill, she took care of paying the bills, dealing with house, lawn and pool maintenance, getting the kids off to school, and preparing dinners of amazing variety and quality. I can count on my fingers the number of meals over 58 years that didn’t come off as planned.
Joan didn’t stay in the house all day long. As a San Joaquin Delta College trustee for 13 years, she was at Delta nearly every day, taking part in meetings and attending special events, becoming a familiar face on campus.
Playing tennis and bridge, riding her bike and more recently exercising with friends at the Lolly Hansen Senior Center were favorite daytime activities over the years.
Joan loved going places with her daughters as well as her granddaughters, Carolina and Jackie Trimble and Samantha and Natalie Huckabay (known as “the Nippers”). They went to any number of cultural performances (“The Nutcracker” comes to mind) and other kinds of events in San Francisco and elsewhere.
And, yes, Joan and I made a number of trips to Europe and Asia, including a couple of sessions of German language classes. She told me once, “If I ever run away from home, you can find me in Klagenfurt, Austria.”
We had plenty of conversations for all those 58 years, mostly around the breakfast and dinner tables and often about public events, TV and movie offerings of the day, and politics. We even managed to agree on many, but not all, candidates.
Those sessions were, with extremely rare exceptions, wonderfully “interesting.”