Affirming Life -- Newlyweds, 92, Look To Their Future While They Treasure Their Memories

A card table covered with invitations to their wedding stands in his living room, not 10 feet from grainy black and white photos of this pair in earlier glory:

-- He's the picture of youth, strength and confidence, breaking the tape for the University of Washington mile relay team in the early 1920s.

-- She's lithe, impish as "Puck" in the 1918 Lincoln High School production of "Midsummer Night's Dream."

Yesterday new photos were taken, new glory gained. Donald E. Douglas, 92, married Constance Palmerlee of the same vintage.

The RSVPs to their reception, which took place after simple nuptials at the Rainier Club, included regrets from the final two comrades of Douglas' "Last Man's Club," survivors of World War I, too frail to come.

And they included a lively acceptance from Palmerlee's older sister, who was "hopping" down with her 100-year-old husband from their Whidbey Island farm.

"Hopping" is just the sort of active word that peppers the conversation of this Magnolia couple. "I'll just run upstairs," says she. "Let me carry that chair for you," says he.

They describe their friends and adventures in glowing, optimistic terms.

"Wonderful guy."

"Magnificent tree."

"Very exciting trip."

As much that is beautiful about our history passes by like a runaway train, it's a rare treat to linger in the station with people who were very much alive then, and are very much alive today.

Memories often smell of basements. They seem in need of a hard polish to bring back the sheen. Not so with this pair. Their thoughts are crisp, as fresh as a favorite sheet hung to dry near a blossoming garden.

Some time after Douglas' wife of 65 years died in 1987, Palmerlee invited Douglas to a money-raising ice-cream social at her century-old Ravenna house.

He had another obligation that day, but he agreed to escort his former Lincoln schoolmate to the opera. Since then, they've been to Bermuda on an ocean liner, up the Mississippi River on a paddle wheeler and, most recently, to the Kentucky Derby.

"I tell you, hearing `My Old Kentucky Home' sung by 100,000 voices is really an experience," said Douglas, who gives Palmerlee full credit for pulling him out of "grief and loneliness."

His daughter, Dale Douglas Mills, a former Seattle Times writer who supervised preparation for yesterday's wedding, said people keep asking her why the couple felt a need to marry at 92.

"They want to be together," she says. "In their generation, you didn't live together without being married."

In fact, it's only the formality of their manners that gives away their ages.

Both still move gracefully. Both are addicted to the news, particularly to deeper analysis. He loves to discuss politics.

They remain community activists, going after anything that looks like an affront to the environment - most often, winning.

While Douglas gets away with eating whatever he wants, Palmerlee describes herself as a health nut.

She's an advocate of Vitamin C and has eaten organically since she discovered nutritionist Adele Davis and, later, the Puget Sound Consumer's Co-op. Her mother was equally careful about good health and, in her 90s, trotted off on tours of Great Britain and France.

Six out the seven kids in Palmerlee's family are alive and healthy even though some, she notes, "are getting up there."


Not long ago, Palmerlee needed a new valve to perk up her heart. She got one, thanks to the sacrifice of a pig, to whom she remains grateful.

There's one problem, says Douglas:

"She squeals once in a while."

Their memories span almost the length of statehood in Washington, but their common reminiscences have a gap of about 70 years.

She knew him by his track exploits in high school and college. He knew her because she was a school officer and in drama and music. But between then and the late 1980s, they went their separate ways, except for yearly Lincoln reunions.

"Isn't he cute?" she asks, showing off his 1918 album photo.

Palmerlee and Douglas are the last representatives of the class of 1918 and even they were forced to miss this year's celebration: No excuse, other than their wedding.

Douglas, born Aug. 1, 1899, came to Seattle in 1914 as the result of five straight years of drought in his Guthrie, Okla. homeland.

As a youth, he hauled spring water by pony and cart for 5 cents a gallon to neighbors, who had only muddy water to drink.


"The crops would come up and wither away," he says. "I remember my father saying we were going to go out to that country where the greenery came right out to the water."

They traveled by train and found Seattle to be "quite a city" already.

Palmerlee's mother came as a teenager some years earlier, when the city was centered farther south, near Alki. Palmerlee grew up on the Puyallup Indian Reservation, where her father was superintendent.

How the Indians fared depended entirely on who was superintendent, she recalls, and her father always was on the side of the Native Americans.

Her father's love of music prompted one of the Puyallups to go on to play with the London Symphony. Another played with the Seattle Symphony, where Palmerlee's brother, Ronald Phillips, was first chair clarinetist for more than 50 years.

Phillips, who is "pushing 90," Palmerlee says, played at yesterday's wedding and reception, much to his sister's delight.

One day, early in her courtship with Douglas, Palmerlee dusted off the recollection that her father had coached a reservation football team that had beaten the UW.

Douglas, a champion trackman for Hec Edmundson at the UW and still a great sports enthusiast, listened politely and bit his lip.

"I didn't believe a damn word of it," he says.

Then Palmerlee got a hold of Douglas' copy of Dick Rockne's book, "Bow Down to Washington," and there it was, 1898, the Puyallup Indian team beat the UW, 13-0.

"I'm going to lose that book," says Douglas.

Her ties to Washington go back even further.

Her great-grandfather was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln and helped get him elected. As a reward, he was offered governorship of Washington Territory. He loved the job so much that in his 60s he rode by horseback to Washington, D.C., to see Lincoln to get his post renewed.


He met with Lincoln long enough to describe the beautiful trees here, 60-foot around. Family history records that Lincoln pondered this news and remarked, "I wonder how many rails that would make." The next night, he was assassinated.

Douglas, too, was linked to that era. His grandfather, who lived with his family in Oklahoma, had served as a captain at the siege of Vicksburg. Douglas remembers him talking about the difficulty of foraging for food first for his horse each night and then for himself.

Douglas just missed overseas duty in World War I. The boys were all eager to get out of high school in 1918 and trained on the cold, wet bog of the present Husky Stadium site.

School got out in June and the war ended on November 11, 1918. His brief service was enough to get him into the "Last Man's Club," which has met at the Rainier Club every Armistice Day since the 1930s. Douglas, youngest and most active of the remaining three members, proposed last November that they drink the long-saved bottle of cognac, but was overruled.

After high school, he earned his business administration degree at the UW. His fundamentals in finance are so sturdy that his granddaughter and her husband, both professionals in the field, still come to him for advice.

"His strong work ethic and his integrity and his Oklahoma horse sense really combined to make him a very astute businessman," said his granddaughter, Jane Charles, in town for the wedding.

Douglas retired in 1964 as vice president and treasurer of PACCAR, and, after celebrating with a trip to the Tokyo Olympics, devoted himself to becoming his grandchildren's biggest fan.


He tried not to miss a game or concert, and attended every graduation, once even braving the ash of the recently erupted Mount St. Helen's.

"He pushes himself and challenges all of us grandkids," said Charles. "He's still coming up with new things he wants to do."

Douglas' son, Donald R. Douglas, is a retired attorney living on Whidbey Island.

Palmerlee did not have children but raised a niece.

Her family was centered on music. Her father insisted all seven children learn the piano first and then a second instrument. Four went on to earn their living in music.

"To be fair, you should say he was a little rigid about it," suggested Douglas, prompting Palmerlee to talk about coming home from school to practice the piano, give lessons to her two brothers and finally end the evening with family orchestra practice.

"My poor mother had to cook for all of us with no help," she recalled.

Palmerlee was offered a scholarship to the New England Conservatory but turned it down to come to the UW, from which she was graduated in 1925.

She was hired to teach in Forks, where for four years she drafted members of the community for plays and operas, anything for entertainment, and played the piano to accompany silent films.

"We used any possible excuse we could find to go with anyone into town," she said. "`Oh,' we'd say, `Oh, could we go along, too?' I wanted to be home. I adored my family."

She got her wish when she was hired at Roosevelt High School, where she taught from 1929 to 1943, leaving there to go to Anchorage to entertain for the U.S.O.

"That was an exciting time in my life," she said.

It was also where she met her first husband, a Unitarian minister. They moved to Richmond, Va., where she taught at a branch of the College of William and Mary.

For this second time around, it seems unbelievable luck that Douglas and Palmerlee, such kindred spirits, should end up with each other from a peer group so dwindled.


If they have attended more than their share of funerals, it hasn't affected their ability to see the humor in life.

"One day I went over and let myself in and they were way off in another part of the house and I could hear them laughing uproariously," said Douglas' daughter, Dale. "I think they're going to keep each other going for a long time."

The couple has no honeymoon plans because they so recently traveled, but they're open to suggestions from one of her sisters, a travel agent.

"Connie and I decided, at our tender ages, to set things up so we can get old together," said Douglas. "Now, we can take our time getting old."