75 Christmases of wedded love

Hard-working couple met, married as teens during Great Depression

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SPRINGFIELD, Ore. — If memory serves — and it has to go back a long, long way — Dick and Velma Scharen met either the day before or after Valentine's Day. Ten months later, on Christmas Day, they married. The year was 1937, in the depths of the Great Depression. He was 18, she was 15.

Now 93 and 90, the couple celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary Tuesday, snug in the Hayden Bridge neighborhood of north Springfield, surrounded by family members who provide round-the-clock support that allows the couple to stay where they've lived for nearly 50 years since leaving the family farm near Goshen.

They met on that farm. Dick's people were Lane County pioneers. Coryell Pass, marked by a plaque alongside Franklin Boulevard east of Glenwood, was named for his forebears. His grandmother, it's said, came west in the same wagon train as Eugene Skinner.

Of the 1,000-acre farm where Dick and his four brothers — Walter, Bill, Bob and Ted — grew up, Barcelona filberts took up about 70 acres and provided nursery stock for many of the area's other filbert orchards. The rest was used for other crops and livestock, including sheep and pigs.

"Even if they didn't have money during the Depression, I think their lives were fairly stable," says Vicki Nelson, one of Dick and Velma's three children and the younger of their two daughters. "They had the farm and could grow food. My mother's family situation was much different."

Velma Scharen, born Velma Robertson, blew into town from the Dust Bowl with her father and seven of her nine siblings, in an old truck with a canopy over the bed to hold them all.

Back in the Texas panhandle, her mother, just 35, had died recently of "dust pneumonia," an inflammation of the lungs caused by breathing in dust particles carried by the prairie wind as it blew away topsoil throughout the nation's drought-ridden midsection.

Breathed in too-large quantities, the dust couldn't be expelled, damaging the lungs and often leading to death.

Velma's older sister, Jewel, was grown and stayed behind when the rest of her family left. Already married, she kept Velma's baby brother, David, to raise as her own, but she died eight years later, in childbirth.

The others — J.D., Carl, Lloyd, Velma, Modene, Rozell, Jess and Dortha — made the trip.

The family always had been desperately poor. They lived in Oklahoma when Velma was born, later moving to Texas. "My dad was a roamer," Velma recalled. "He worked in the oil fields, but during the Depression there wasn't much work to be had."

Her own working life began at age 6. Along with her older siblings, "I worked sunup to sundown in the fields, for $1 a day," she said. "We picked cotton, peanuts, maize, all by hand — there was no machinery back then. I would come in crying. I was in so much pain I could hardly stand, and my mother would say, 'It's just growing pains.'"

Just 13 when her mother died and the oldest girl at home, Velma stopped attending school after eighth grade, becoming a substitute mother to her younger brothers and sisters.

On the trip from Texas, which took a month, "We would stop and eat pork and beans and sardines and sleep alongside the road," she said.

When they arrived in Goshen, her father had $50 to his name. "He met a man there who said he was working for a local farmer. My dad and my brothers went out to the farm to see if they could find work."

The farm belonged to Dick Scharen's father, and Dick was the first person they saw: "I was going up to milk the cows, and her dad said to me that he understood we might have work pretty soon. I said, yes, we would have work in the filbert nursery before long." Her father got a job.

Dick and two of his brothers were the same ages as two of her brothers, and from that day on, "We all horsed around together," Velma said. Almost immediately, she and Dick felt the attraction that led to their wedding.

Courtship consisted of "dates" on which the young couple were invariably accompanied by several of Velma's younger brothers and sisters. Her family was thrilled by the match.

"They all loved him," she said. "I turned 15 on Dec. 19, and we decided I was old enough to get married. So we got married on Christmas."

An elderly woman in Goshen, Mrs. Goldson, "liked our family, and she said, 'What are you going to wear?' I didn't have anything of my own," Velma said. "I was owed $5 for picking prunes, and I intended to use that, but my dad had picked it up from the farmer and bought one of my brothers a pair of shoes."

Mrs. Goldson came to the rescue, with a three-piece gray suit, white blouse and new shoes. Her wedding day "was wonderful," Velma said. A local minister officiated the ceremony in his living room. Without a car or money for a honeymoon, the newlyweds spent their wedding night at the home of one of Dick's married brothers, on Cloverdale Road near Creswell.

"They slept in the attic, and so did we," Velma said. "They hung a blanket in the middle, and they had one side, and we had the other."

Life didn't change all that much after the wedding. Dick and Velma continued to live with family and raise her younger siblings until they could afford to move out on their own.

"My sister who is now 81 called us Mom and Dad," Velma said. "She didn't even remember our mother."

It was six months after the ceremony before they could afford to have a wedding portrait taken.

The Scharens had no children of their own until 1946 — "We already had raised a lot of kids," they both say. The Depression continued, and they worked hard on their own farm and others, picking hops, digging carrots, whatever it took to earn a bit of cash to help make ends meet.

Soon after World War II began, Dick enlisted in the Navy and was gone three years, stationed in the South Pacific — Tarawa, Marshall Islands and Gilbert Islands -- where he served on land as a radioman and also flew missions on a PBM torpedo plane, as radioman, navigator or gunner.

"He never came back the whole time he was in the Navy," Velma said.

As it did for many, life improved after the war ended. In addition to farming, Dick ran a hardware store in Goshen, catering to the needs of local farmers.

Velma had studied business at the Eugene Business College — "I was always a whiz in math," she said — and she took care of record-keeping.

In 1955, they took a vacation, driving a two-door Plymouth to the Southwest, where the car broke down in Provo, Utah. "There was a brand-new 1955 red-and-white Chevy Bel Air coupe sitting there, and we traded in the Plymouth and bought it," Dick recalled.

"We took the license plate off and put it on the Chevy and drove home. I remember it was a V8 and had overdrive — we went 55 to 60 miles per hour all the way home."From then on, they could afford to trade for a new car every three to four years, Velma said, "although we kept one Mercury for about 17 years."

Remembering that long-ago combination Christmas-and-wedding day, Dick chuckled.

"I didn't have any presents to give," he said. "I guess I was the present." That worked both ways, Velma agreed.

Both consider their 75 years together a great gift. "I would do it all again," Velma said. Dick nodded.