By J.K. Olson for Wausau Pilot and Review
Wally Engel, 104, and his wife, Marge, 98, took a long look back this month from Primrose Retirement Community in Wausau, where they have lived since 2011. They remember with clarity the eras and industries they have seen come and go during their 79 years together — starting with the surprising way their relationship began.
Wally and Marge attended the same church in their hometown of Butternut in Ashland County. One Sunday, their youth group went to Wally’s parent’s farm for some outdoor winter activity.
“I had my skis on and was at the top of a hill when I noticed him,” Marge said. “He was standing close to the trail at the bottom. As I started down, he stuck out his arm.” She was certain he’d pull his arm back in before she got there.
“I thought I could catch her,” Wally said. “She was going faster than I figured.”
“He knocked me off my feet, and had to pick me up,” Marge said. “So, I literally fell for him then.”
They started dating after that. Marge was in high school and Wally was a young normal school graduate teaching first through eighth grade in the rural township of Agenda, the same community where his parents lived.
They married in 1940, one year after Marge graduated from high school. By then, Wally was teaching in Winchester, a tiny town of more than 50 lakes, 6,000 acres of state forest, and a library that’s open just three days a week. He taught in and around that area for 44 ½ years, through the transition of education away from its one- and two-room beginnings.
From Winchester, he moved on to teach in Mercer, Manitowish Waters, and Lac du Flambeau.
“Teachers moved around a lot for salary and better school conditions,” Marge said. “He taught in graded schools, where they had grades one through four, and five through eight.”
Then those schools closed, and that was the beginning of consolidation. Manitowish Waters, Winchester, Presque Island, and Boulder Junction, consolidated and formed North Lakeland, where he taught for 10 years.
On Jan. 1, 1970, Wally was hired by the consolidated town board to teach math. Enrollment was about 250 students.
“We had a nice grouping of students,” Wally said. “It varied from year to year.”
Back then, Marge said, people tended to move in and out. In Winchester, the mill arrived in 1910. There was no local government there, so the mill built the school. But in about 1926, the mill left Winchester. Some people stayed in Winchester, but the majority eventually left.
The Northwoods was an area of transient movement in the early 1900s because of the forestry business, Wally said.
“They exhausted the white pine and the hemlock for building, and then all that was left in the area was the hardwood,” Wally said. “And of course they found a way to use the hardwood through the veneering process, and that’s how the veneer mills got going. They made airplanes out of the hardwood veneer.”
In their hometown of Butternut, Northern Hardwood Veneers, Inc., manufactured plywood that was used to build the famous WWII de Havilland “Mosquito” bomber. According to Butternut’s official history page, 1,000 carloads of Butternut veneer “winged” their way over Europe.
Teaching was far from Wally’s only job. He added to the couple’s income by working in the woods, helping loggers on the weekends.
“When he was teaching school, he was also the janitor, when he first started, because they gave us a little more money for that,” Marge said.
“Wally helped someone in their plumbing business and he eventually bought it and became a master plumber,” Marge said. “We put up a building and divided it in half. For twenty-some years, Wally had his plumbing business on one side, I had a soda fountain and gifts on the other. People buy when they go up north, they all want to take something home, you know. I used to have moccasins and sweatshirts and gifts, jewelry and newspapers.”
After Wally retired from school, he did his plumbing on the side, and ran for town assessor.
Marge’s summer gift shop wasn’t her only job either. A friend of the couple rented resorts in the fall, offering three meals a day and a guided hunt on state land. Marge eventually became the cook, also helping make beds, handle reservations, and track deer and bear.
“He turned it into a ski lodge in winter and we had skiers from all over the country,” Marge said. “I used to go to the sport shows and book reservations.”
The couple has three sons: Roger, 78, who lives in Edgerton; Dale, 74, who lives in Kansas; and Gary, 67, in Pensacola, the only one of the three who is not yet retired.
“We also have three lovely daughters-in-law, three granddaughters, and three great granddaughters,” Marge said.
For Wally and Marge, technology has evolved enormously over their lifetime. Wally sold some appliances while he had his shop. But even though they could get a TV wholesale, they were one of the last of their friends to buy one. Marge had seen TV cut into real life too much. Wally’s concern, even now, is that that too much screen time leads to a lack of creativity.
Wally said he hopes children today make the most of every moment while they’re in school.
“While you’re in grade school and high school, the government pays for your education,” Wally said. “It’s free. Get the most out of it that you can, you know? Build yourself. But that idea has gone. A lot of people are just in school to be in school.”
Church and faith have always been a central part of the couple’s life together. Marge recalls her father hitching a team of horses to a sleigh every Sunday, her mother heating bricks in the oven to warm the children’s feet during the four-mile trek to church in Butternut, where they attended services and Sunday school.
In Winchester, there was no church, but visiting pastors would make the rounds for residents there, Marge said.
When asked about advice or wisdom they have gained, Marge is quick to warn against holding grudges.
Wally and Marge say they count their blessings.
“We went through our nineties pretty good,” Marge said. “Last winter now, I’ve felt myself going downhill. I’m starting to have problems that people have in their 70s, their 60s.”
Marge developed arthritis. She began dropping things and finally had to put her jewelry away. She struggles with her legs. But then she hears about a young woman in her 30s who suffers from arthritis and she realizes how fortunate she’s been.
“It’s been a good life,” Marge said. “It hasn’t been a bed of roses all the way, you know. We’ve had some rough times, when we first got married you know. It wasn’t easy, but our love got us through, and our faith in the Lord.”
J.K Olson is a freelance writer from Wausau. Follow her at https://wordpress.com/view/jkolson.blog.