Sisters celebrate 50 years of promises kept

Marriage: Three couples who wed in a triple ceremony half a century ago are still together.

August 28, 1999|By SEATTLE TIMES

SEATTLE -- You can add it all up -- the thousands of days, the millions of minutes, but what it comes down to is that a long time ago, in a little church near the Canadian border, three young women all made promises and decided to keep them.

For 50 years.

When a couple endures 50 years, that's impressive enough. When three sisters, married on the same day, are still happily hitched after half a century -- well, you could call that a big deal, one that will be commemorated with a family dinner today in Lynden.

Says Gertrude Kooy, the youngest: "I guess it is a little unusual."

Growing up in a farming family taught them to work together in relationships, for better or for worse. "You were dependent on each other more then than you are nowadays," Gertrude says. "Living that isolated, your best friends were your family.

"I think it's good to need each other."

They grew up on a nameless scrap of Montana and then the dairy country of Sumas, near the Washington-Canada border. There were nine Kornelis siblings in a house that was not big, so squabbles were quashed quickly.

Henrietta, the quiet one, met Joe DeWaard at a luncheon his parents threw for teachers.

Niecia, the social one, met Bernard Engbers at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, S.D., where both were studying to be teachers.

Gertrude, the vivacious one, met Canadian resident Ralph Kooy at church. Kooy crossed the border weekly to attend.

Because they were all teachers, they couldn't get married during the school year. "We realized it would be much simpler if we got married at once," Gertrude says. "It was a matter of convenience."

The wedding was an evening affair, typical of area church services, arranged to accommodate the farmers and dairymen who were going to attend. "They worked quite late with their milking," explains Henrietta.

At 28, she was the oldest of the three, and when the wedding march began, she walked down the aisle on the arm of their father, Abram. Behind her came Niecia, 25, and Gertrude, 22, escorted by their two oldest brothers.

Afterward, they ate sandwiches, potato salad and cake -- and laughed at how one sister had mistakenly signed her name under the wrong husband's signature when the wedding certificates were passed around. Says Henrietta: "It was a happy day."

The years have brought a lot of change -- "It's probably been the most amazing 50 years anybody's ever lived," Gertrude says -- but they still haven't figured out how to make marriages any better than they were in 1949.

The DeWaards, Engbers and Kooys have 18 children and 50 grandchildren across the country. The DeWaards retired near Lynden, Wash., and the Kooys manage an irrigation-equipment store with a chirping-bird door chime in Quincy, Wash. The Engbers moved to Michigan and spend winters teaching Native American children in New Mexico.

All nine Kornelis siblings -- including four brothers who'd gotten married before the triple wedding in 1949 -- are still married and living with their spouses. The oldest is 80, the youngest 65.

And this is what Niecia would tell young people starting out today: Always think of the other person's good, rather than your own.

For Henrietta DeWaard, 78; Niecia Engbers, 75; and Gertrude Kooy, 72, there's no scientific equation, no magic formula, to the commitment they made that August evening in 1949.

A simple question. A simple answer.

I do, I do, I do.

And they have for 50 years.

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