Bill Gray is one lucky man.
There’s no other way to explain the recent unearthing of his wedding ring that had gone missing for more than 50 years. Or that he is married to a beautiful woman who clearly rolls with all the antics of her husband.
Let’s flip the calendar back half a century or so to start this tale.
Bill’s luck began early in life, when he spied Sue Gehlhausen at Gonzaga University. The Colville, Wash., senior watched the freshman from Montana as she found her way to the purser’s desk to pay tuition. The young lady happened to have a head of full of curls, and he’s always been a hair man, Bill told me with a grin.
That wasn’t the start of things between the two, however. “He was a jock and I’m not interested in sports. Never have been,” Sue said as the couple sat in their living room last week.
“When you play college basketball, it’s full time. I never had time to date,” Bill added. “This was the first time my teammates had seen me interested.”
It took Gonzaga’s annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities months later to plant a seed for a family that would someday include six children. As for prom king and queen, university students there voted for an “Irish Mick” and his “Colleen,” as a nod to the school’s Catholic church foundation.
In what seemed to be a move of collegiate matchmakers, that year only one Mick was nominated and just one Colleen ... and you’ve guessed correctly.
The winners had to pose in a shot of familiarity, so there’s Bill gazing at his Colleen as she pretends to straighten his tie for the photographer.
“Do you want to see it?” Sue asked me, jumping up to fetch the picture. “I sent it to my mother. She took it in and showed it to my dad, and he said, ‘She’s going to marry him.’”
And on June 21, 1958, Sue did, putting a simple gold ring on her husband’s finger. It wasn’t fancy, but the young bride-to-be had the band engraved with “SG to BG, 6-21-58.”
Two years later, with a family already under way, the Grays moved to Walla Walla, buying a home on Mill Creek Road. Sue took to raising children — at one point, there were six little Grays under the age of five (the second child turned out to be two) — like she was born for the job. In the meantime, Bill developed addictions to hard work and handball.
The day in 1961 he noticed his wedding band missing, Bill was certain he’d left it in the corner of the old YMCA handball court. “I had to take my ring off to play or it would cut my finger,” he explained.
It wouldn’t be the last wedding ring to disappear. Sue puts the count at three — at least — her husband has lost.
“We kept replacing this ring,” she said.
Over the decades, children grew up and left the nest, while the area surrounding the Gray home went from farm land to a developer’s hand. When new neighbors moved in and began creating a picturesque lawn to match their beautiful house, Bill and Sue were slightly mortified by their own “back pasture.”
It was their own lot, all right, but there was already a spacious lawn, bordered by a fence. For decades, it made sense to leave the back half in scrubby, weedy isolation.
Again, mortifying to see what the neighbors saw from their back patio.
Recently, the Grays decided to tackle their shame and whip their back area into grassy submission. Thus nearly every family member was there on a recent weekend, “picking up rocks, raking up rocks, using a tractor to shove rocks,” Sue said.
After loads and loads of fill dirt had been dumped on top of it all, a railroad tie was dragged to level things out.
They were about to wrap the day up when son Tom (child No. 5) stooped to retrieve something glinting in the dirt.
Up he came with a gold ring, dented and dull with dust. But that wasn’t the magic moment — not quite yet.
Tom brought the ring into his parents’ house to clean it up, discovering while washing it the band had something inscribed on the inside.
Still, no one remembered the long-lost wedding ring right away, Sue said.
When her son fetched a magnifying glass and started reading the engraving, however, everything clicked. Here, from the most unlikely spot on the Gray map, was the piece of jewelry dating back to their marriage in 1958. And in surprisingly good shape.
Standing on his deck and looking over the area, Bill said he couldn’t fathom how it came to be there. “It was rocks and rocks and rocks. If you had a 10-foot radius to look in, you couldn’t find it.”
Watching Bill and Sue, it’s obvious to me they needed no shiny ring to complete the circle of love and family. Closing the mystery is fun and makes a wonderful story, certainly. But 55 years of marriage, six children, a lifelong commitment to the community the Grays live in?
That’s the real story. That’s gold.
Sheila Hagar can be reached at 509-526-8322 or email@example.com.