A lasting love
Peggy was still a teen when her University of Oregon roommate, Claire, fixed her up with Van, a friend of Claire’s boyfriend. She enjoyed her blind date with the World War II veteran, even if he did attend arch-rival Oregon State.
“He’s a joker,” Peggy recalled. “He was always cracking wise. That’s the kind I liked.”
Actually, Van claimed, “What she liked was my good looks.”
As for Van, he hadn’t planned on finding a girlfriend so soon, let alone a wife. Just back from a stint in the Navy, he was ready to sow some wild oats.
But he let his buddy, Lou, talk him into a blind date. Pretty Peggy did the rest.
As it happened, that blind date ignited a love that would last a lifetime.
“She swept me off my feet,” Van said. “She’s a keeper.
“I love her so very, very much. I thank God for her every day.”
The Vandeheys moved to Vineyard Heights last year, but it’s really a return to McMinnville, rather than a relocation.
“We’ve been deeply involved in McMinnville over the years,” Van said, noting he still has a Pendleton wool coat he bought at Hamblin Wheeler, a popular men’s store that stood for decades at the corner of Third and Davis.
While Peggy was born in Klamath Falls and raised in California, Van grew up in Yamhilll County, where he had extended family.
He was born in Roy, north of Gaston. Just after his first birthday, a few weeks before his sister was born, his father died in a car wreck.
His mother moved to McMinnville to be near her parents, the Hermens. They lived in the Masonville area, where they donated land for the Masonville School.
Van went to St. James Catholic School for eight years. When he wasn’t in school, he spent time on relatives’ farms, helped out around the house or stacked wood.
Times were hard.
“I remember complaining to my mother about the patches on my knees,” he said. She told him not to complain. At least he had clean pants to wear.
In 1937, when he was 15, his mother died. That left him and his 14-year-old sister, Alberta, on their own.
“Uncle Bill” Bernards, a 60-year-old bachelor, took the teens in. Van said he didn’t appreciate then what he knows now: How hard it must have been for Bernards to bring two teens into his house, and how much he did for them.
Van graduated from McMinnvillle’s public high school, Lincoln High, in 1940.
Billy Maxwell was the principal of the school, a massive brick building located where a shopping center now sits, at 12th and Baker streets. Graduating classes posed on the steps of the gym, which was where Shari’s is today.
Van’s high school friends knew him as “Norb.” He didn’t pick up his “Van” nickname until WWII, when his buddies shortened his Dutch surname of Vandehey, which means “from the highland.”
“In Holland, that means about 30 feet up,” he joked, noting the region is known for lowlands, not highlands.
Van played percussion in the high school band.
One day, preparing for a parade, the musicians loaded up on the fire department’s hook and ladder rig. He chose to sit at the end of the ladder, which cantilevered from the truck, dangling his legs as he pounded the drum.
Within a year or two, he had a different mission: Like most young men of his era, Van found himself in the service. He was turned into an electronics technician’s mate in the Navy’s Pacific fleet.
Many times, he said, he would sit on the bow of the ship, watching the flying fish, and wondering what he’d do when he returned home.
He liked agriculture and building, so he figured he might become an agricultural engineer. With that goal in mind, he enrolled at OSU on the GI Bill.
Many of his fellow vets were on campus, too.
“We ex-GIs walked about six feet above the ground,” he said. “We’d just won the war!”
They were men of the world, not innocent students. So they didn’t feel like they had to abide by the campus rules that forbade casual corduroys for freshmen, smoking on campus and anything but Beaver clothes on Wednesdays.
They even scoffed at the college’s “new” buildings, which were recycled from the military base at Camp Adair. “Cardboard palaces,” the former soldiers called them.
“I figured my life had been interrupted by the war,” Van said. He was ready for adventure. Settling down wasn’t on his agenda.
But he didn’t scoff at the chance for female companionship when Lou asked him to serve as a date for one of Claire’s friends, He recalled waiting outside a Corvallis barn on a cold January night while Lou drove to Eugene to pick up the girls.
Peggy remembered the night that she, Claire and several other girls piled into Lou’s car. “I’d just broken up with my boyfriend. It was January and we were bored. So I said I’d go,” she said.
The barn dance was fun, she said, and she got along well with Van, an “older man” of 24. They arranged for another date, and another — usually outdoor activities with Lou and Claire or other friends.
“Suddenly, I was enthralled by this beautiful coed,” Van said. “Lou and I would drive to Eugene and I’d see Peggy on the balcony. Oh, boy. I was in bad shape.”
Then one weekend, the guys planned a ski trip. Claire was ready to go, but Peggy said no. She would rather go to Roseburg to visit relatives.
“I thought that was the kiss off,” Van said. He was ready to spend the day on the slopes moping, but his friends had other ideas.
“They worked on me all day on the mountain, and got me to meet her bus when she came back to Eugene,” he said. “Then we decided to get married.”
Both he and Peggy have thanked Lou and Claire many times for helping them find each other.
The coupled married in McMinnville on Dec. 29, 1947, between college terms. Many of Van’s cousins attended the wedding, and that worried the groom.
It was very common back then to have some fun with the betrothed couple, Van said.
Everyone was still talking about the latest wedding hijinx. When Ivan and Nan Bernards got hitched, the guys made the groom push the bride down Third Street in a wheelbarrow.
“I was worried about what they’d come up with for us,” he said.
Sure enough, a wheelbarrow showed up at St. James Church. But Father Julius Hermens, another cousin of Van, noticed it and promised some kids a $5 bill if they would make it disappear.
Father Hermens proceeded to conduct the ceremony, which went off without a hitch.
It seemed that only one thing would go wrong that day: Afterward, when they had their photos taken, the camera broke. So they ended up with only one wedding picture.
Wedding guests joined the couple for a reception in the old Oregon Hotel, now McMenamins Hotel Oregon. Then, planning to visit Peggy’s family in the Napa Valley, the newlyweds headed south in their 1937 Plymouth — only to find that pranksters had smeared limburger cheese on the manifold.
“It stunk for a month,” Peggy recalled.
They returned to college, this time both at OSU. Van went on to graduate on schedule, but Peggy quit school to tend to their first child. She returned later to earn her teaching credential.
Van, who had changed his major to education during his senior year, had done his practice teaching with Paul Patrick at his alma mater in McMinnville. After graduating, he applied for an opening for a vocational and agricultural teacher at Sheridan High School.
He scheduled an interview with the school board. As he waited his turn, as board members talked with another candidate, he could hear convival laughter.
“That’s it,” Van figured. “He’s got it.”
He recalled, “They asked me one question: ‘If we hire you, what would you do?’” And that threw him for a loop.
Weeks passed with no word. So Patrick encouraged him to drive to Sheridan and find out his fate in person.
Van confronted Frank Smith, the high school principal, who later became his good friend. “Did I forget to call and tell you you’re hired?” Smith asked.
Van spent 10 years in Sheridan. Then he switched careers to become a 4-H agent, first in Albany and later in Eugene.
He was an active member of the Kiwanis Club for more than 50 years.
Long retired, the Vandeheys moved from Eugene to McMinnville to be near their offspring, most of whom live in the northern Willamette Valley.
Eldest Ted lives in Portland, second-oldest Beth in Medford, middle child Patrick in Newberg, second-youngest Susan Edwards in McMinnville and youngest Bob in Portland. The “Van Clan” also includes 10 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
“We’re very proud and blessed with our family. Our kids are so wonderful,” Van said. “They all come to see us. What a blessing they are.”
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.