Tom Ross: Nonagenarian love birds one of Steamboat’s oldest living couples
September 19, 2013
Steamboat Springs — A love affair that flourishes and endures for 80 years is a rare and precious thing.
Just do the math. For a couple to be in love for that long, they must have met in their teens and both boy and girl must have survived into their mid-90s.
It sounds improbable, and it is. But that's the story of Bill and Betty Neish, of Steamboat Springs. Bill turned 96 on Tuesday, and Betty turned 95 on Wednesday.
Another way to say the same thing would be to note that Betty was born on Sept. 18, 1918 and Bill was born on Sept. 17, 1917. Does it feel a little like the stars aligned when Betty Brown and Bill Neish began dating at Steamboat Springs High School in the early 1930s?
The couple delayed their wedding day until 1942 when Bill graduated from the Army Air Corps flight school and was commissioned an officer shortly after the U.S. declared war on Japan in World War II.
"They began dating since they were 15 and 16, so they've been a couple for 80 years," the Neishes daughter, Sanse Berry, said. "They're such a unit. They are so in love and so kind to each other and so thoughtful. It's been an eye-opener for me to see the love, the commitment and the appreciation for each other. They're always holding hands."
Holding hands? Let's be real, Bill and Betty still like to snuggle on the couch of their farm home near Lake Catamount and smooch!
Still, their romance took hold gradually in the beginning.
"I didn't really date many girls besides Betty," Bill said. "I worked in the grocery store after school. She'd pick up a lunch, and we'd have a picnic down by the creek during my lunch hour. We weren't exactly going steady."
Betty attended University of Denver, and Bill went to the University of Colorado for a few years before enlisting in the military. After graduating, Betty came home to work in the AAA office for about a year, her grandson, Paul Berry, wrote in a school paper a few years ago. She then relocated to Stockton, Calif., to work as an accountant.
"When she graduated, she went on home, and I went into the Army," Bill said. "I didn't like to walk in the mud and snow and couldn't swim, so I said, 'I think I'd like to fly.' When I enlisted, you couldn't be married and be in the Air Corps."
Fortunately, Bill took to flying so naturally that he became a pilot trainer.
Bill and Betty married March 16, 1942, soon after he became a commissioned officer. They moved to Las Vegas, where Bill was stationed and trained bomber pilots to fly the B-17 and the B-29. During their three years in Nevada, their first child, Ed, was born.
After World War II, the Neishes returned to the Yampa Valley to farm.
Sanse said her brother was his father's right-hand man from the time he was a little boy.
"I had cattle for a while and mainly wheat, oats and barley. We had plenty of irrigation water, and we had the meadow for hay for the cattle. We sowed barley and oats in the spring," Bill said.
Ed Neish never will forget September 1961 when 18 inches of snow fell in the south valley in a single storm.
"We had 700 acres of oats and wheat that smashed flat on the ground," Ed said.
His father located a special farm implement designed to lift the grain stalks high enough for them to be harvested, then purchased cattle so that he could feed them the compromised grain and salvage its value.
"We've never completely lost a crop," Ed said.
The family took time out in the busy summers to camp in a canvas tent and fish for trout on Buffalo Pass. Because they did not have to feed cattle all winter, they moved to town in the coldest time of year while the children were in school and took part in the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
Sanse excelled in Alpine skiing and made the Olympics training squad. Bill became president of the ski club and worked hard to put on the Winter Carnival.
"We used to have a hard time getting that ski hill packed up and in shape," he said. "We didn't have a snowcat; we packed it down with skis. We walked up the hill and made it solid for the jumpers."
Betty and her friends Dee Richards and Nancy Gleason opened up their homes to visiting skiers during Winter Carnival.
"We always had lots of company and cooked big spaghetti dinners," Betty said. She also recalls sharing well-used ski parkas with guests so they wouldn't have to expose their good ski clothes to the sparks from the Winter Carnival fireworks and night show.
Ed said his father pretty much walked away from aviation after the war but gradually came back to his passion and was among a group of five men who put their heads together in the mid-1950s to build the first dirt runway at what is now Steamboat Springs Airport. The others included Johnny Bray, John Jilcott, Walt Smith and Pete Stanko.
Before long, Bill had purchased a Super Cub from Henry Elgin and began flying crop dusting runs on his own grain fields as well as those of his friends and neighbors, Ed said.
The Neishes began spending part of the year in Arizona about two decades ago and spent the past five years there full time. But now, one of Routt County's oldest living native couples has come home to stay.