Petersburg couple celebrate their 75th birthday

Petersburg couple celebrate their 75th birthday

Last Sunday, there was a familiar sight in Petersburg at the Lutheran Church’s Holy Cross House: a table laden with open-faced sandwiches, shrimp salad, pasta, delicious krumkake, spritz, and kransekake (wreath cake). But this time, the celebration was for an uncommon, perhaps unprecedented event: the 75th wedding anniversary — a milestone that so few couples have accomplished that there are no statistics for it, according to the US Census Bureau. The room was filled with sound and clamor with happy reunions and expressions of exclamation over a display of old black and white photos of the guests of honor: Colin and Wally Swanson.

Colin Wally can’t say for sure when they first met. She remembers him as a little boy in the Lutheran Youth Choir, when he must have been six or seven. Wally remembers Cullen as one of the high school girls who went to work for the phone company as a switchboard operator after school, from 4 to 10 p.m., and as Song Queen (cheerleader) when he was a basketball player.

At the time, the two-year age difference between them meant that while they were familiar with each other and their parents were friends, they didn’t really know each other. It was the summer after Colleen’s freshman year of college, when her parents invited the Swansons to dinner and a card night, where they were thrown together and decided to go for a walk.

“We walked around and went up CAA Hill, which is where the ball fields are now. It was a wooden road back then. I bet not many people remember when it was CAA Hill. And that was the beginning,” Wally says.

Colin nodded yes, “This wasn’t an official date, but that was the beginning.” When asked what caught his interest, besides the fact that Colin MacDonald was cool, before he could answer, she said sarcastically, “Well, I had a boat!”

When they decided to marry, Wally was nineteen and Colin twenty-one. “He had to get his parents’ permission,” Colin laughs.

He replies, “She likes to mention it. And she’s been doing it for seventy-five years.”

She laughs, “Talk about cradle robbery!”

Roxy Lee remembers their wedding. This was the first event she attended after arriving in Petersburg in 1947, at the age of eighteen. Her aunt made it clear that all church assemblies were held downstairs because upstairs, although the roof was pitched and stained-glass windows installed, the interior of what would become a sanctuary was unfinished and crowded with supplies. So it was a big surprise to arrive and find that a group of friends and family had worked together to stack all the wood in the sanctuary behind the altar and hide it behind a row of little fir trees. They carried the weary rows of connected theater chairs upstairs, and Reverend wife Helga Knutson dismantled the cross and new candelabra and allowed them to roll out the new red carpet runner. They have placed gorgeous bouquets of flowers along the driveway so that Swanson will forever be the first couple to marry in their new Lutheran church sanctuary.

The couple moved into the apartment next door to Wally’s parents, above what was then the telephone company and library and now the Petersburg Pilot.

It wasn’t easy. For their first few years, he would work in a canning line canning canning and then take whatever jobs he could find over the winter.

They had four children in five years.

They bought a lot on Wrangel Street and their parents helped them build a concrete basement and frame the house.

Wally recalls, “I was working 12 hours from May 1st through October. Every weekend, I thought I was going out, and we had to make snow. Colin’s dad danced it and while I worked and the kids were asleep—I used it and a drill press to make pilot holes in the many short lengths of my floor The oak we put in the living room and the bedrooms. And she insulated the walls, and she covered them with wallpaper.”

“She made our home beautiful,” says their daughter, Carol McCabe. “She’s always had a very stylish sense of fashion.” Her daughter-in-law Miriam Swanson adds: “She wasn’t afraid to get dirty and loved working in her garden, but whenever she went out she would put her little clothes on.”

When they moved their young family to Wrangel Street, it was lined with homes owned by young couples building families. Sue Paulsen remembers when her folks moved there, “It was heaven! All these young families with lots of kids running around.” Lots of kids called it “Row of Rabbits”.

Wally took a permanent job at the Kayler-Dahl Fish Company in 1951 but still worked long hours.

Colin was feeding the kids, packing dinner for Wally, getting all the kids in the car and out off the long narrow sidewalk to bring him a warm meal. “When she was making dinner, the meat, the vegetables, the potatoes, and maybe a roll, it was just a full meal every night,” her daughter Carol says.

In 1957, Wally was offered a job in Hayward, California at Continental that was to service canners at various canneries. The children’s usual hours and opportunities were so tempting that they packed most of their belongings in the attic, rented the house, and bought a Ford to haul their trailers full of necessities. They didn’t have much, and the house at Hayward was so small that Wally made a plywood bench with a cushion on it to affix it to one wall, “and that was our port.”

Their youngest son John recalls, “The playgrounds were of concrete and chain-link fencing. It was a shock for the kids who used to run free in the rainforest. It felt like we were in prison.”

Carol remembers that when it rained, all the California mothers would call their babies inside, but the Swanson babies ran outside and glorified it.

Wally recalls that the job was not as described, and after six months, the family was ready to go home. “It was the best thing we ever did, go home. In the fall of ’65 I got the job at PFI because the summer foreman didn’t want to stay in Alaska. I was lucky and stayed there for twenty-five years.” He went on to become the plant manager, and later the fleet manager.

When John started first grade, Colin became the first secretary/accounts keeper at the Petersburg Primary School and stayed there for twenty years.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Breiner

Twenty-eight family members gather around Wally and Colin Swanson. Four of their grandchildren (Beckett Thane, Grayson Hankins, Brett Smith and Ryan Swanson) were christened on Sunday before the anniversary celebration at the Holy Cross House. Pictured (back row, left to right) are: Matt Brenner, Tyler and Lauren Thane (holding Beckett), and Jennifer Brenner. Centered, standing left to right: Aaron (holding Grayson), Kelly Hankins, John, Miriam, Logan Swanson, Leah, Tom, Keri, Ben Swanson, Terry, Adam, Rob Swanson, Ethan Brenner, Caitlin (holding Brecken) Smith, and Carol McCabe (holding Brett Smith). In the foreground, seated: Aria Swanson, Colin Swanson, Libby Thine, Wally Swanson, Wren, Elliott, and Parker Swanson. Not pictured are: Annie, Kent, Brooke, Oliver, Finn Chalmers, Cory, Amelia, Ryan Smith, Gail Swanson and Sawyer Brenner.

Carol recalls, “Our mother is an incredibly hardworking worker. She would make us breakfast before we all went to school, then we would all go home to lunch, and she would make us a good lunch! She would go back to work; we would go back to school and every night she would make dinner family and hand one to my father if he is not able to go home.” She was also very active in the Lutheran Church as director of the choir for young and old, in the library board, mother of the Cub Scouts, and leader of the Girl Scouts.

Wally’s father told him they should buy a large plot of land on Nordic Drive that was for sale, and they did. he is

And Colin built a house on the north side of the lot

Long live Colleen’s mother


The house that came with the lot was in poor condition, so Wally, a volunteer firefighter, arranged a training session and burned it to the ground. There they built their third and final home, a light and airy place with stunning views of Wrangell Narrows and the Coast Range.

Neither Wally nor Colleen feel they have any big secrets to marital success. Colin says, “Just like everyone else, we had tough days and days that were pretty sweet.”

Their eldest son Rob believes anyone can learn from their marriage, “They both always put family first. They stuck with it.”

And that boat that Coleen returned when they were courting? Rob says, “It was a beautiful rowing boat that her father, my grandfather Mac, made for her. He was a boat builder. My father had made a mold and then made eight fiberglass copies, so we all have one, all children and some grandchildren.”

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