Friday, February 10, 2012

A marriage to remember

Valley couple celebrates 50th anniversary

Express Staff Writer

Wendy and Billy Collins stand in their backyard in Triumph, where they have lived for 36 of their 50 years married, proudly displaying a photograph of their three grandchildren. Photo by David N. Seelig

It is the tragic love affairs that dominate magazine headlines, have Grammy-winning songs written about them and are immortalized on the silver screen by Hollywood execs. It is the stories about overwhelming obstacles placed between star-crossed lovers, when the path of true love is anything but smooth, that capture the attention of the masses and make someone, somewhere boatloads of cash. And really, who doesn't like a good cry? If Leo didn't die at the end of "Titanic," or Adele didn't get her heart broken—twice—pop culture just wouldn't be the same.

But a real love story, by definition, is one in which a couple meet, marry and live happily ever after in a valley in the sun, surrounded by thriving grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In honor of Saint Valentine's Day (who we know actually favored the bloody, destructive side of love), the Idaho Mountain Express brings you a good, old-fashioned love story.

Wendy Berkeley met Billy Collins on a school bus when they were both 14. In the waning years of the 1950s, they made the daily commute together along the edge of the Pacific Ocean, from the shores of Malibu to the hubbub of Santa Monica.

By 15 they were dating, and at 18, with Billy planning to enlist in the Navy, Wendy agreed to be his wife.

"We were at his cousin Connie's wedding, and afterwards he asked if I would like to get married," Wendy said. "It was very sweet. Everyone thought we were crazy, though, because we were so young. But when you're 18 you think you're an adult."

It was 1962, and the Vietnam War was on full throttle. The couple married when Billy came home on leave, before he was sent to Japan and the Philippines, where he served as part of the operation crew in an anti-submarine warfare squadron.

They lived in Stockton, Calif., where they had two baby boys, Billy and Jamie, before moving back home after he was discharged from the Navy.

In 1971 they packed up their family and moved to Ketchum. Five years later they moved to the tiny outlying hamlet of Triumph.

"We had come to visit friends here and we couldn't believe how nice everyone was," Wendy said. "So we decided this would be a great place to raise our children. We've been here ever since. Everyone here was the same age as us and there was a great community. It was a really wonderful time, and a lot of those same people are still here."

Wendy and Billy's two sons, grown up now with families of their own, live next door to each other in Hailey. Billy and Theresa have been married for 10 years and Jamie and Katrina for 25. They have three children: Collin is a freestyle skier in Utah; Harlan, 18, is a downhill ski racer; and McKeanna just had a baby last week. Eugene, born in Jacksonville, Fla., is Wendy and Billy's first great-grandchild, and his birth completes a perfect story for the couple who married 50 years ago this month.

The double-digit marriages in the Collins family are impressive, and they started with Wendy's parents, who were married 55 years before her father passed away. So what is the Collins' family secret?

"We were always really good friends," Wendy said of her five-decade marriage to Billy. "We both loved the outdoors. We always did everything together and we still do. Whatever one of us learns the other one learns—right now it's bass fishing and skeet shooting. For a few years we did cowboy action shooting, where you wear period costumes and shoot pistols, shotguns and a rifle. We also did team roping for about eight years, and when we were younger we used to ski together.

"I think the secret to a successful marriage is to always work on your friendship, to learn things that your partner's interested in, to not expect so much from your partner and to share your strengths and weaknesses equally."

As an ordained minister, Wendy is used to sharing her formulae for a successful marriage.

"It's what I always tell other people—to be grateful and to be forgiving. We all grow and change, we grow so much over time. Allow your partner the space to grow and change too, because you don't always do it at exactly the same time. The most valuable thing in life is to have a really good partnership with the person you live with."

Wendy isn't sure yet what she and Billy will do to mark their 50th anniversary.

"We wanted to go to the [Sun Valley] Lodge Dining Room, because that's what we always do, but they're not open this year," Wendy said. "So I'm not sure what we'll do, but I think Billy has a plan."

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