It took four years for Bill and Stella Cope to finally celebrate a wedding anniversary in each other’s company. They haven’t let anything get between them since.
The Parksville couple, wed shortly before Bill shipped off to Europe to fight with allied forces in the Second World War, marked 75 years of marriage last week in a ceremony attended by four generations of family at Eagle Park Manor in Qualicum Beach.
It was a day that Bill never could have imagined when the two 97-year-olds shared their vows on March 28, 1942.
“Frankly, no,” he said. “When you’re 21, you’re really not looking that far ahead. This has been quite a milestone.”
Today, Bill lives with the family of his grandson in Parksville. Stella has been a resident at Eagle Park for the past two years, due to deteriorating health following a fall that resulted in a broken hip at age 93. The two had four children — three of whom still live in the Parksville Qualicum Beach area — along with 10 grandchildren spread among B.C. and Alberta, and two great-grandchildren.
Bill and Stella met as 16-year-olds and had known each other for nearly five years when Cope enlisted in the armed forces armoured corps and was attached to the Ontario tank regiment, in September of 1941. Six months later, with the expectation of his unit shipping off for the war, he and Stella were married.
Despite the relatively long courtship, Bill admits his looming departure played a role in the timing of the wedding.
“I think it did speed things up,” he said.
The couple had nearly eight months together before he was shipped out, but they would not share a Christmas holiday or an anniversary together until 1946, after Bill participated in the liberation of the Netherlands and remained in Europe until his discharge in January of that year.
“I left for overseas on Christmas day, 1942,” he said. “Our oldest boy, David, was born nine months to the day, almost, from the day I shipped out. When I got home, he was three and a half years old.”
Asked how the newlyweds managed the forced absence for an extended period, he admitted it was difficult, though he joked, “There were no arguments at all.”
“It was a difficult time,” Bill said. “Very few Canadians today know how rigid and regimented Canada was at that time. Stella was working in one of the manufacturers in Brighton (Ont.), punching out mortar shells and so forth.”
The couple exchanged letters throughout the war, Bill said, but fears for his well-being were never brought up.
“I don’t think that was ever mentioned,” he said. “You lived day-to-day at that time. I was very fortunate; I came home without any physical injuries.”
Cope did, however, come home with what he now knows was post-traumatic stress disorder. In the 1940s the affliction was little known or understood, and he said he got through it only with the help of his wife. The trickiest part of the shock of post-war assimilation for Bill, however, may have been coming home to find a rambunctious three-year-old son underfoot.
“Stella and I had a really good life when I got home, though it was very difficult for me adjusting,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about little people.”
Following his return, Bill turned his experience as a tank transporter and driver into a 10-year career operating heavy equipment in Ontario. In 1955, he said, the construction industry bottomed out so he returned to the other thing he knew best — he enlisted in the air force.
Bill spent 16 years in the force, which included a four-year posting in what was then West Germany. This time, his family came with him. During leave periods, he said, he would squire Stella and the kids to different parts of Europe, including a return to the Netherlands and a visit with the family that had billeted him during his post-liberation stay in Holland in 1945.
“We had 30 days a year, carte blanche,” Bill said. “We toured all over the place; it was a great experience for the family.”
Upon his second discharge from the service, Bill moved his family to Jasper, Alta., where he ran the depot for the Brewster Bus line before retiring to Vancouver Island.
His daughter, Zoe Cope, credits the couple’s clean living style with their longevity.
“Stella grew up on a fully operating farm during the depression,” said Zoe. “Her family provided a lot of the food and resources for the surrounding neighbourhood. She and dad both lived extremely healthy lifestyles. This contributes to both of them being in their 97th year and being together at this age.”
For Bill Cope, the man who was not quite sure what to make of the three-year-old stranger in his house in 1946, being around the younger set now helps to keep him young at heart, he said.
“My grandson and granddaughter-in-law moved in with me two years ago when Stella went into the lodge,” he said. “Now I have a nine-month-old in the house. I find them a ball. I enjoy the little ones to no end.”