Willa and Robert Burley enjoy one of the many laughs that have marked their 70 years of marriage, at Rio Verde Mobile Estates in north Auburn. Photo courtesy Virgil McLagan.

Willa and Robert Burley enjoy one of the many laughs that have marked their 70 years of marriage, at Rio Verde Mobile Estates in north Auburn. Photo courtesy Virgil McLagan.

Couple captured in famous photo 67 years ago enjoying the good life in Auburn

The story of when Robert met Willa.

The front page photo from the Los Angeles Times in 1953 was famous in its day.

A young wife rushes forward to welcome her sailor husband home from the Korean War, and as they kiss, her shoe takes wing.

The photographer, who took the photo unbeknownst to the happy couple, did not get their names, so their identities did not appear in the paper.

Now, 67 years after that image was taken and 70 years into their marriage, Robert and Willa Burley look back fondly on that day in Long Beach Harbor — from the porch of their home in Rio Verde Mobile Estates in Auburn.

They recall how Robert, at the end of his first tour, was the first man off the USS Manchester that afternoon after its mooring in Long Beach Harbor.

They recall how Willa had come all the way from her mother’s home in Ottumwa, Iowa, where she was staying while Robert was at war, to greet him.

Willa was overjoyed to have him home, and Robert was overjoyed to be home.

“Yeah, especially to see her,” 92-year-old Robert said, nodding to his wife.

“Oh, dear,” Willa, 91, responded with a laugh.

Laughter, love and deep affection borne of many happy years make up the glue that binds them together.

When Robert met Willa in 1949, he was a young man from Massachusetts just out of agricultural school, on poultry assignment in Ottumwa, Iowa, for the Swift Company. Willa was a phone company operator working for Ma Bell in the farming community where she had grown up.

“I was living in a rooming house when I first came out to Iowa, and there were two spinster ladies in there, and they said to me, ‘You know, there’s a pretty little girl next door. She’s got blonde hair, you ought to take a look at her,’” Robert said.

He did.

“A few days later I went into the lobby of the Ottumwa Hotel, dropped a nickel in a pay phone and called her. I’ve been trying to get that nickel back ever since!”

He drove to her place, just around the corner from his rooming house, to see this pretty girl.

Instant attraction? Yes, indeed.

“For one thing, he was no drinker, not one bit, and he just treated me like a queen or something,” Willa said.

“I think the main reason was I had a new car,” Robert said.

“Yeah,” Willa nodded, “that was part of the deal. I mean, he came to my house in a brand new car! So, I latched on to him and hung on.”

That car, his first, was a shiny, 1949 Chevy, for which he had plunked down $1,700.

No objections from her mother or father?

“No,” Willa said, “none at all.”

“‘Get her outta my house,’” Robert cracked of her father’s imagined reaction, and Willa joined in the laughter.

The couple were married in June 1950.

Robert joined the Navy that year to “escape,” he said, the platoon of army recruiters then hot on his traces.

“Took four years off my hide, but that’s okay,” Robert said of the Navy. “There were problems, but there always are. It was good, and I can’t complain.”

He made two more trips to Korea aboard the USS Manchester after that first tour when the bullets and bombs were still flying.

“It was an 8 o’clock to 5 o’clock battle,” Robert recalled of his time aboard ship. “We would steam in and fire at their coast until 5 p.m when the whistle blew, and then we’d steam out 25 miles off shore and watch movies at night. Next morning, general quarters, and we’re back in again. We had a helicopter spotting for us.”

When Robert left the service in January 1956, he was a first-class IC electrician.

“Some of that was ability, but a lot of it was good chief petty officers doing the training of us guys. We’d be at sea at night, and they’d come down and say, ‘Okay, you guys, no card games until we have class.’ It was good instruction.

“People say a lot of things about the service, but the service does more to train people in this country than anything. I really believe that: pretty much everything in the service is applicable to the outside,” Robert said.

While her husband was overseas, Willa stayed with her mother, but when he got squared away on ship, it was apartment to apartment to apartment, “10 times in four years,” Robert said. “You learn to travel in the back seat of a car with everything you own.”

“When he was in the Navy, I followed him all over the country,” Willa said.

“We met good friends that way, and they’re still friends,” Robert said.

Lot of memories wrapped up in those years.

Places they stayed when he was home during the early years of their marriage, including one memorable ground-floor apartment at Hunter’s Point in San Francisco, where they waited while the Manchester was being fixed. Memorable in particular for the denizens who poured out of the taverns after the bars had closed and got to fussing and fighting.

“Taverns, taverns, on each side of us,” Willa said.

“On Saturday night, fun and games was just to lie there in bed and watch the fights out on the street,” Robert said with a chuckle.

Then there was that “dinky old place” in San Diego with a Murphy bed that emerged from the wall at an angle and had to be propped up at night with shoes.

There were sad moments, too, chief among them the death of their daughter, Rebecca, in childbirth and the death of a second child. Their one surviving child, Mark Burley, 64, is a retired heavy equipment operator who lives in Kent.

After Robert’s time in the service was over, Willa continued on as a phone operator, and he went to work for Ma Bell, later US West. He retired in 1985, one year after the phone giant split into the seven Baby Bells.

Robert then coached Little League and involved himself in youth sports for years in California, and Willa busied herself with Bible studies.

The couple moved to Washington state in 1968, settling first in Port Orchard and then in Kent before moving to Auburn in 1999. On Thursday of this week, they were to move to Wesley Homes on Lea Hill.

Time appears to have taken from them little of their vitality, though Robert has assumed the cooking duties, a task he thoroughly enjoys.

“I’ve got a nice lady to mow the lawn now,” Robert says, “smokes Tiparillos when she’s mowing.”

“He likes her better than he does me,” Willa said with a laugh.

Theirs has been a good life, pleasantly punctuated by the recent birth of their only great-grandchild.

“We were just talking about how lucky we are. Financially speaking, we did the right things, so now we don’t worry about it. We’re not rich by any means, but we can do what we want,” Robert said.

“As long as I get my way, we get along pretty good,” Willa said.


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Willa Burley flies into the arms of her sailor husband, Robert Burley, just back from service aboard the USS Manchester during the Korean War, with such fervor her shoe flies off, in this clipping from the Los Angeles Times in 1953.

Willa Burley flies into the arms of her sailor husband, Robert Burley, just back from service aboard the USS Manchester during the Korean War, with such fervor her shoe flies off, in this clipping from the Los Angeles Times in 1953.

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