People’s stories play out against a backdrop of history. Here’s a love story that took place in a world affected by the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Vesta Coal Company, and World War II. Don’t worry. This story has a happy ending. The people in the story are Jack and Bette. They were my parents.
Jack was born into an Italian-American family in 1925. His childhood was spent in a Pennsylvania coal mine “company town” operated by the Vesta Coal Company. His father, older brother, and sister’s husband all worked in the mine. In the 1940’s, Vesta’s No. 4 mine was the largest bituminous coal mine in the world.
Jack was bright and loved school. In high school, he did well in math and English, wrote stories, played basketball, and was quarterback on the football team. In the summer, he worked in the mine to help his family, but he hated it. Hated the hours of darkness, the danger, the claustrophobic world deep inside the earth.
In early 1943, the spring of his senior year in high school, Jack made the decision to enlist in the Navy immediately after graduation. World War II was raging, and he wanted to help the war effort on the oceans rather than in the mine. He spoke with a Navy recruiter who told him FDR had just approved a new initiative called the V-12 Program to expand the number of officers with training in certain technical fields such as engineering. A nationwide standardized test would be given in April. If he did well, he might be sent to one of the more than one hundred universities slated to participate in the V-12 program.
Jack sat for the test and scored well. By the fall of 1943, he was on the beautiful campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, right on the shore of Lake Michigan. He had likely never before traveled outside Washington County, Pennsylvania. Neither his parents nor his siblings had had much formal education. Now he was at college.
Bette was also born in 1925, a few months after Jack. Her home was in a suburb north of the city of Chicago. Her mother had grown up on a poor farm in Indiana, the tenth child of German-American parents with barely any schooling. Bette’s father’s family had come to the United States from Canada. He’d worked for a Y.M.C.A. then landed a job as an athletic coach and drill instructor at New Trier, a giant township high school serving Winnetka and other communities.
The Great Depression hit the family hard. They lost their home when they had medical bills to pay and missed a single mortgage payment. Bette remembered sitting at the top of the stairs at night, listening to her parents argue about how they would make ends meet. In most of the photographs taken of her as a child, she was unsmiling and solemn.
As Roosevelt’s New Deal programs began to spread money into local communities, Bette’s father convinced New Trier to fund the construction of a giant indoor swimming pool. He soon added the title of Swim Coach to his job description and initiated a wide range of swimming programs for both students and the wider community. Things steadied, and the family’s welfare improved, but hard times had left their mark. Bette was quiet and studious in high school. She earned good grades but did not have a boyfriend and rarely went out to parties or other gatherings, unlike her much more sociable younger sister.
In the fall of ’43, Bette started her freshman year at Northwestern University. She was considering becoming a nurse. Somehow, she summoned the courage to visit a few of the sororities on campus, and was invited to join Alpha Xi Delta. Bette was convinced the only reason she was selected was because a few quiet studious girls were needed to increase the sorority’s grade point average.
As the semester began, the sororities at Northwestern decided to sponsor a dance to welcome their new Navy classmates from the V-12 program. Bette was disinclined to go, but her sorority sisters insisted. Jack had expected to miss the dance because it was his turn to be the V-12 “duty officer” for that Saturday night, charged with signing his V-12 classmates in and out for the evening and making sure all returned by curfew. But then a V-12 classmate asked to switch duty officer dates with him, so he was free to go to the dance.
Jack was standing at the edge of the dance floor when he saw Bette arrive and start down the stairs into the ballroom. Decades later, he could still describe the dress she was wearing—a navy blue frock with tiny white polka-dots. He walked right up to her and asked her to dance. And they danced, and danced again, and didn’t dance with anyone else, just like in a fairy tale.
Before the night was over he had her phone number. Before the week was over, they had seen each other again. Before the month was over, they were in love.
On the morning of February 28, 1946, Jack graduated from his V-12 engineering program. That evening, Jack and Bette were married. Were they as happy as they look in these photographs? Yes. They lived happily ever after. Just like in a fairy tale.