A long Walla Walla love affair

Gene and Betty Soper also share a love of horses, music and helping others.

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At 87 and 91, respectively, native Walla Walla Valley residents Gene and Betty Soper love horses, humor and all things western.

And after 45 years of marriage they sometimes say the same things simultaneously:

"A farm girl that married a city boy," they both said, referring to her growing up on a ranch near Prescott and his being in a Walla Walla business family.

They also share a love of music and a strong desire to help others, especially young people.

That includes awarding the annual Gene and Betty Soper Music Scholarship, which they began in the mid-1990s, to a music student attending Walla Walla University. The 14th annual scholarship, the most recent, was awarded last year to vocalist Stefanie Crumpacker-Flerchinger.

For the music major, the timing of the award couldn't have been better.

"In fact I would go so far as to say that it was looking like I would have to take some time off and earn more money," Crumpacker-Flerchinger said.

"I think it was a God thing. He has blessed the Sopers, who have in turn blessed my life, and I intend to do the same in the future if I am able," she said.

At the time they created the scholarship - a hefty amount the Soper's asked not to make public - they saw a rising need.

"We could see, in light of the tuition going up and up and up, the students' ability to pay was harder and harder."

He was also the president of the board of the Walla Walla Symphony and said he appreciated contributions WWU students made.

Also, the Sopers' deep faith - she's Catholic and he's Presbyterian - led them to choose the Seventh-day Adventist college, even though he attended Whitman College.

"It's more religious than any of the others we considered," Gene said.

In addition to music and faith they both love the western lifestyle.

"I was raised on a ranch and I always rode," Betty said. She taught riding for many years, then founded the Blue Mountain Riders.

When he returned from the U.S. Army in World War II, serving in field artillery and the infantry, he went to school under the GI Bill. He attended Whitman College for two years and the University of Washington for two years, where he majored in business administration.

After returning to Walla Walla, he joined the family business, Soper's Leather Goods store on Main Street.

"If you count my time and my father's time we spent 113 years in downtown Walla Walla," Gene said.

This made his career and set the stage for meeting his wife-to-be.

"He needed a clerk," she said. "I applied for a job. In a week or two he called me. I knew the saddlery."

During their time at work, their friendship deepened.

"I had just never found Mrs. Right," Gene said. "Then that second day we talked and got to know each other."

They married in 1966.

"And we still like each other," she said, using a sense of humor that permeates their conversations.

The leather goods business thrived; they remodeled and expanded twice. The most recent expansion took up what used to be the men's-only Shep's Smoke Shop.

In the mid-1990s Gene figured it was time to retire.

"So in 1996 we liquidated everything and sold the Baumeister Building," he said. "I can't walk down Main Street without getting scolded by my customers for closing the store."

As for Betty, a co-founder of the Blue Mountain Riders formed in 1952, she's often been seen atop a horse parading down Main Street.

The group has 155 members, she said. And they parade very well, often winning.

"If they're really serious about it they win," she said. They won so many times in Portland that she said they were asked not to come back.

"I feel so good after I ride and it's not too much trouble to get on," Betty said. "Of course I don't just leap on like I used to do."

But she and her husband continue to jump into myriad activities locally and abroad.

He spent three years with the Friends of Children in Walla Walla organization and joined Rotary not too long ago.

Travel has also been a long-shared experience, including riding the rails across the continent on the American Orient Express. Their work and travels have led to meeting many people all over the world. So far, they've traveled to eight European countries and have a special love for Vienna.

Closer to home, for 68 years Gene has been an active member of be the First Presbyterian Church.

"I've held every office except choir," Gene said. "They wouldn't want my voice."

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