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75 years of devotion and love: Bill and Bernice Mason’s marriage is nearing the record books

Top photo: Bill and Bernice Mason were married Feb. 16, 1935. Bottom photo: The lifelong island residents now live at Life Care Center, formerly Islands Convalescent Center, in Friday Harbor. - Top photo: Mason family collection. Bottom photo: Richard Walker
Top photo: Bill and Bernice Mason were married Feb. 16, 1935. Bottom photo: The lifelong island residents now live at Life Care Center, formerly Islands Convalescent Center, in Friday Harbor.
— image credit: Top photo: Mason family collection. Bottom photo: Richard Walker

This story is about Bill and Bernice Mason. But it’s also a story for certain readers out there.

It’s a story for anyone who needs a reason to believe in marriage again, for anyone who longs to know whether love truly endures all.

Bill and Bernice have been married 75 years. That’s longer than the average lifespan, longer than 12 U.S. presidencies. The Great Depression and the Great Recession, bread lines and gas lines, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War … all have been relegated to, or are on their way to, past tense. The Masons’ marriage has outlived them all.

Five more years of marriage, when Bernice is 99 and Bill is 98, and the Masons could make the list of the 100 longest-recorded marriages in the world. (According to Wikipedia, only 17 couples married 80 years or more are alive in the world as of this writing.)

The Masons’ secret: They say there isn’t one. But family members say the Masons’ relationship has always been one of mutual devotion. In tough times and good, they were a team.

“They got married during the Depression. But I never heard them complain. They never talked about things they didn't have,” granddaughter Tami Hayes said.

When it came to making decisions, “There was never a question that they were a unified front,” Hayes said. “It was always ‘we’ or ‘us.’ They never considered doing anything without the other.”

Her grandparents’ philosophy of life: “Be a good person, mind your Ps and Qs, respect your neighbors, and do things the right way.”

That philosophy is a reflection of their lives.

Bill Mason was born Oct. 13, 1916, the son of David Martin Mason, a sawyer and shoe store owner, and Katherine Beigin, a seamstress. His maternal grandfather, Irish-born U.S. Army private Patrick Beigin (1834-1903), landed at Griffin Bay with Capt. George Pickett and Company D on July 27, 1859. His maternal grandmother, Lucy Morris (1842-1923), was Haida from Alaska.

Bill’s family was devoted to St. Francis Church; the family hosted visiting priests, and Bill was an altar boy at 6, helped build the church’s new chimney at 10, and at 14 drove to the church every Sunday to build a fire and pick up the visiting priest.

Bill remained active at St. Francis Church throughout his adult life. He helped maintain the church and, in 1959, he helped move the church building from the valley to its current location on Price Street.

The former Bernice Heidenreich was born Dec. 5, 1915, the daughter of Andrew and Mary Heidenreich; he was a pea farmer, she was a telephone operator. Her grandfather, George Heidenreich, crossed the U.S. by covered wagon and settled on San Juan Island where he built a house on Wold Road.

One of Bernice’s uncles, Walter Heidenreich, died during military training during World War I and is listed on the monument in Memorial Park.

Bernice grew up near False Bay. She was a good student and her father moved her from a school in the valley to Friday Harbor High School, where she was destined to become salutatorian of her graduating class.

Bill wooed Bernice after she arrived at the town school. “It came about real fast,” he said of his love for her.

Bernice recalled of Bill, “I fell in love with him. He was very handsome.”

They graduated in 1934 and a courtship followed. They went to dances and shows. While Bill was no Arthur Murray, he enjoyed getting on the floor. “I thought I could dance. But I was not as good as she was,” he said.

A Catholic priest married them on Feb. 16, 1935 in Bill’s parents’ home in Friday Harbor.

One of the young groom’s earliest jobs was sacking lime at Roche Harbor Lime & Cement Co. It was tough work: Filling 100-pound sacks with lime at a hopper, then loading 50 of those sacks onto a skip loader for transfer to a ship or storage in the warehouse.

Bill participated in the union strike in 1938 and was also the union’s bookkeeper. Bill said he later fell out of favor with a supervisor and was fired.

“(Company president) Paul McMillin called me and offered to hire me back, but I said no. I decided I wanted to do something better for myself,” Bill said.

He bought a 36-foot gillnetter and fished from Alaska to Oregon. That too was tough work: Bill could write a book about the harrowing storms he survived in the Gulf of Alaska. “I prayed all the time,” Bernice said.

Meanwhile, Bernice was a working mom. She worked in the cannery, in a clothing store, in the drug store. She played piano at dances in the Moose Lodge. A song that came out in 1947 is still her favorite: “The Tennessee Waltz.”

They made their home on Bailer Hill Road, on land once owned by Bill’s grandfather Beigin, and were devoted to their church and their family. Today, that family includes their son and daughter-in-law, Vaughn and Laurie Mason; two grandchildren, Shane, who works for the Friday Harbor Water Department, and Tami, harbormaster at the Port of Friday Harbor; and four great-grandchildren.

Vaughn, who was one of the best prep tennis players on the West Coast in the 1950s, said his parents were always supportive of him. He said they were poor — perhaps cash poor — but knew how to live off the land.

“They ate deer, ducks, pheasants. It was nothing to go out and get 15 to 20 pheasants in one day,” said Vaughn, who graduated from his parents’ alma mater in 1958. “They caught crab, caught salmon, caught halibut. They survived because they knew how to fend for themselves.”

Today, Bill and Bernice live at Life Care Center of San Juan Island, formerly Islands Convalescent Center. Their affection for each other, and appreciation for the efforts of others, is charming. To Bernice, Bill is “Billy,” just as he was in high school. And Bill, learning that news of their 75th wedding anniversary would be in the “Friday Harbor Journal,” responded, “Oh, boy!”

Vaughn was hard-pressed to identify the secret to his parents’ marital success.

“They are from a different generation. It’s different now than it was then. They think differently.”

Perhaps the world would be a different place if we all thought “differently” about what’s really important, like faith and family and other things that outlast any prized possession we could own.

If we all thought like Bill and Bernice Mason.

— Contact Richard Walker at 378-5696 or rwalker@sanjuanjournal.com.

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