Beatrice “Bea” Wiltsie wasn’t searching for a soul mate when she left Ithaca College in upstate New York to pursue a commercial pilot’s license at the age of 18.
“I was very much in love with airplanes,” she said, pointing to a faded news clip printed in August 1940. “Amelia Earhart, of course, was my heroine.”
Preserved in a scrapbook, the yellowing article includes a black-and-white image of a beaming, curly-haired woman wearing a cardigan and a beaded necklace. She’s refilling a Piper J-3 Cub; a small aircraft once popular for flight training.
Above the article, Bea’s handwritten caption reads, “a few weeks before Fred.”
With a spirited personality and sapphire eyes that sparkle at the near-age of 90, it’s easy to see why Fred Wiltsie, then 23, asked Bea on a date just minutes after making her acquaintance.
Fred’s older brother – who was filling in as Bea’s flight instructor Sept. 26, 1940 at the Utica Airport in N.Y. – introduced the two.
“He asked me out for a Coke,” said Bea, her blue eyes complemented by a teal blouse Wednesday inside her Wheeler Manor apartment.
Sparks were flying that September night. The friendly Coke date segued to a movie, followed by a cocktail, then dancing at a club. The evening ended with a goodnight kiss.
“I had kissed a lot of guys, but there was something that clicked,” said Bea. “It was interesting.”
It had to be one heck of a lip-lock. Bea never got around to finishing the requirements for her commercial aviator’s license.
The couple eloped three weeks later, sticking by each other’s sides for the better or worse parts of nearly six decades.
“(Fred) used to say he got a lot of mileage out of me,” smiled Bea, flipping through a scrapbook documenting the couples’ exotic trips. “They said it would never last. Years later I felt like going, ‘na, na, na.'”
Their 56-year marriage spins an epic saga of worldly adventures.
As avid travel enthusiasts, Bea and Fred weren’t preoccupied so much with possessions; as they were the call of the open road. The two became seasoned globetrotters, exploring the ruins of Rome; to the remote plains of a rural sheep camp in Africa; to the quaint streets of Troye, France; to the majestic ruins of the Heidelberg Castle in Germany.
When Bea and her late husband met more than 70 years ago, Fred was at home for the summer visiting his family in Utica, N.Y. He attended the same high school as Bea in a nearby suburb called Whitesboro, but graduated several years ahead.
Fred was due back in Florida Oct. 22, 1940 to report for a job at a specialty grocery store; hence the decision to elope, Bea explained. The pair courted every day for three weeks after meeting at the Utica airport, and that was enough.
While surprised that her daughter didn’t want a wedding with the trimmings, Bea had approval from her mother, who gave Bea $75 to help with travel expenses.
The lovebirds got hitched Oct. 19, 1940 in Dillon, S.C. – the one state en route to Florida that didn’t require blood tests (a standard practice at the time to ensure that the couple is not related), or lengthy paperwork that would have taken several days to process. The sweethearts needed a short, sweet ceremony so they could continue to Florida on their blissfully wedded way.
“Five dollars and five minutes with the justice of the peace,” chuckled Bea, who changed for her nuptials into a periwinkle corduroy dress inside a gas station restroom.
A year later on Oct. 2, 1941, the couple gave birth to their only daughter, Carol; now 70 and residing off Thomas Road in Gilroy. Bea and Carol remain close and see each other on a regular basis.
Having stellar role models for maintaining a healthy marriage taught Carol the importance of keeping the communication lines open between husband and wife.
“What I took away from my dad was to be a squeaky wheel,” said Carol Monday over the phone. “You need to speak up when things aren’t going right.”
Carol was married for 41 years to Tak Jio, her late husband who passed away July 18, 2010 due to complications with his liver.
Bea said Carol, who enjoyed camping and traveling with her parents on trips until she entered high school and became disinterested, was “shocked that we got a second mortgage on our house so we could afford to travel,” Bea laughed. “I didn’t care if I had $1,000 drapes. I wanted mileage.”
Inside Bea’s apartment, relics from a lifetime’s worth of adventures paint a trajectory of travels, from a “Holland America Line” coaster sitting on a lamp stand, to an African safari vest hanging in Bea’s closet.
Bea’s bathroom in Wheeler Manor, fittingly, is festooned in postcards, a map and a shower curtain depicting the seven continents.
“We’ve been to Kenya, Morocco, France, Germany …” said Bea, pointing to various spots with an index finger.
Besides the time they spent road tripping all over the western United States in an RV, the couple lived in various areas throughout California. While Fred worked as a logistics engineer for Ford Aerospace, Bea eventually landed her “dream” job working as secretary to the director of International Education at California State University, Fullerton.
Fred passed away from heart failure Nov. 10, 1996 at the age of 78. The couple was living in Oroville in Butte County.
“I think about him every day. I miss him,” said Bea, sighing. “He was my dearest friend and beloved companion. It’s hard being a widow.”
After Fred’s passing, Bea stayed on for three years in Oroville before moving to the Garlic Capital in 1999. She has been living independently for six years at Wheeler Manor, a senior housing complex on Fifth Street. She has two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Bea still remembers “their song” – a jazz/dance number for couples called “Begin the Beguine.”
Written by Cole Porter, recorded in 1938 and made famous by dancing legend Fred Astaire in the MGM musical, “Broadway Melody of 1940,” this is the first song Bea and Fred danced to during their first date.
Bea loved Fred’s sense of humor, and the way he cared about other people.
“He had such a warm, outgoing personality,” she said, of the man who stuck by her side through thick and thin, including the years she battled breast cancer between 1988 and 1990. “He could not have been more supportive. He was so wonderful.”
Her advice for a long and healthy marriage?
“Never go to bed mad at each other,” Bea advised. “We had a pact that we would never go to bed mad at each other.”