Les Sonneson believes the key to his long-lasting marriage with his wife, Wanda, is their ability to “cut off the arguments as soon as possible.”
“Because it’s so easy when you’ve got a temper like mine to lose control, and then everything goes to hell,” the longtime Washougal resident said. “(We’ve had) no family strife for all those years. Spats? Yeah. Disagreements? Certainly. But most of the time, we were able to reach a common base and just get along.”
They certainly have. Les, 95, and Wanda, 93, will mark their 75th wedding anniversary on Monday, Dec. 21.
“(To be married for 75 years feels) tiring,” Les joked. “Actually, it feels like a great accomplishment, because neither of us expected to live this long. Because we did, we’re kind of dumbfounded by the whole aspect. If I knew I was going to live this long, I would’ve changed my pension program.”
“(The fact that they’re celebrating their 75th anniversary is) miraculous. It really is,” said their daughter Cheryl, who lives with them. “They’ve been there for me forever, and I just love them to death. They’re still here, and we’re blessed to have them.”
Greg and Meghan Parthemer, who have developed a close relationship with the Sonnesons since moving across the street from them in 2005, feel blessed as well.
“There are many things we love and admire about them, but the biggest has been their outlook on life,” Meghan said. “They are part of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ which served our country, worked hard and gave back to the community. They are also very caring. They used to cut out newspaper clippings that mentioned our kids, bring them gifts for Christmas and have attended our birthday and Christmas gatherings and my son’s graduation party. They feel like part of our family.”
Love at first sight
Les and Wanda met in 1943 as teenagers in Enumclaw, Washington. Les lived in a “small house down a dead-end road,” at the end of which sat an “old ranch.”
“(Wanda’s) grandfather, who raised her, decided to retire from his job in Seattle. He looked at several different ranches all around King County, found this one, and kind of fell in love with the location,” Les said. “He bought it and moved the family up from Mercer Island, where they had been living, to Enumclaw. And because (Wanda) had to go past my house to get to school or town or visit any of her friends, we kept bumping into each other, so to speak.”
Les was immediately attracted to Wanda, but struggled at first to devise a way to gain her attention.
“Oh, I knew (she was the one for me),” he said. “Because she didn’t know me, I figured I had a chance. The most difficult part was that I never knew exactly when she was going to come by so that I could be out in the yard. Her brother was just a little bit younger than me, so he and I became active as teenagers. We’d go hiking and hunting and stuff like that. We would always manage to be somewhere where she was.”
Whatever Les did, it worked. He and Wanda were married on Dec. 21, 1945, in Les’ sister’s living room in Seattle.
“We did not have a big wedding ceremony,” Les said. “We found a justice of the peace, and had a best man and a maid of honor, and that was it. It was very simple.”
At the time, Les was on leave from the United States Army Air Forces, which he joined after graduating from high school.
He missed out on World War II, but was assigned to a squad to carry out duties during the occupation of Japan in 1946. After completing his tasks in the Far East, he was discharged from the Air Forces and accepted a job in Seattle, where he and Wanda lived for several years and had their first child, Steven, in 1948.
Then they moved to Portland, where Les attended Multnomah Community College while Wanda “carried the load.”
“She was working, providing the income for the household, because my part-time jobs didn’t amount to much while I was trying to go to school at the same time,” Les said.
They then moved to Corvallis, Oregon, to allow Les to finish his schooling at Oregon State University (OSU). While there, their second child, Cheryl, was born.
After Les graduated from OSU, he accepted a job in North Carolina, where the Sonnesons stayed for a short time before returning to the Pacific Northwest. Les worked for the Weyerhaeuser Company in Longview, then accepted a position in the research division at Crown Zellerbach in Camas, where the family moved in 1957.
Four years later, they relocated to a house on “C” Street in Washougal, where they have lived ever since.
“When we moved here, Washougal was about the same size as Enumclaw had been when I grew up, so I was comfortable with the size of the village we were in,” Les said. “I just felt welcomed when I moved to Washougal. I did not have to dance any jigs for the neighbors or anything. It was just a nice place to live.”
While Les worked, Wanda stayed busy, raising three children — their youngest, Jeffrey, was born in 1960 — and volunteering for several community organizations, including East County PEOPLE (Promoting Economic Opportunity Preserving Livable Environment) the Camas-Washougal Historical Society.
“She’s been kind of cautious about how many things she volunteered for, because she knew how deeply she could get involved,” Les said.
Les also served Washougal as a city planning commissioner, council member and interim mayor.
“I enjoyed being on the planning commission and directing the growth pattern of the physical city. I also enjoyed most of my time as a councilman and mayor,” said Les, who took over as the Washougal’s mayor when William Bright resigned in 1987 and remained in the position until 1989, when Mason Smith was elected to the position.
“I had a few problems with what I thought was incompetence in the city staff, so I angered a few people because I tried to make some changes there. Washougal had reached a point where growth had almost stopped because they were having so much trouble getting the paperwork through the system.”
Couple thankful for health, family
The Sonnesons remained active in retirement, spending a large part of their time away from home.
“We did quite a bit of traveling around the western United States,” Les said. “We went east of the Mississippi a couple of times, but most of our travels were up and down the west coast and back to Montana, Wyoming and Colorado — just enjoying the scenery, essentially. We had no major demands on us, so we just kind of enjoyed ourselves.”
Les enjoys gambling — he used to have a craps table in his basement to practice for visits to some of his favorite gaming establishments, such as Cal Neva Casino and Harold’s Club in Reno, Nevada.
“And Wanda likes scotch,” Meghan added. “Whenever Greg gets some good stuff, he takes a glass over to her. And he still goes over and puts up their Christmas lights in the tree for Wanda because she loves them.”
And up until a few years ago, they still did all of their own house and yard work.
“Every day in the summer, Les would be out there in his yard work jumpsuit, and he and Wanda would be on their knees weeding and tending to all their flower beds,” Meghan said. “They really never ask for help. They are ‘do-it-yourself’ people in a time when people pay to have things done.”
Les and Wanda feel fortunate to spend so much time with their two children and five grandchildren, most of whom live in Washougal. (Steven passed away in 2005 after contracting hepatitis.)
But these days, they aren’t as physically active as they used to be. Wanda has suffered from two strokes in the past several years as is bound to a wheelchair. Les “is not physically able to trust (himself) to do much on two feet,” but can move around a bit with the help of a walker.
Even so, “(we’re thankful for) the fact that we still have reasonable health,” Les said. “We’re extremely limited in what we can do. We have to count on Cheryl to put the wheelchairs and walkers in the car and take us to where we want to go. This past year we’ve done nothing except sit at home.”
They are still perfectly capable of bringing joy to others, however — the same way they’ve brought joy to each other for the past seven-and-a-half decades.
“They have great stories about their youth and travels,” Meghan said. “Les reminds us of Mark Twain. He always has a story to tell and a twinkle in his eye. Wanda is quieter these days, but she is always listening and pops up to put him in his place or correct a story. They make us laugh a lot and have a wonderful rapport — you know, the way people do when they’ve been married 75 years.”