John and Marge Dillon renewed their wedding vows Nov. 23 before family and friends after 70 years of marriage.
The ceremony took place at the Siena Golf Club, 10575 Siena Monte Ave., in the age-restricted community in Summerlin where the couple live. They raised two sons, Gary and Rick, and now have two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
John told everyone that their marriage survived because of a talk he’d had with his father.
“My dad’s advice for a happy marriage was to (remember) these two words, ‘Yes, dear,’ ” he said.
Things could have turned out differently.
The pair met as teenagers when both attended Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, Colo. John said he was smitten with Marge’s model-like good looks. She said she found it odd that he walked her home each day.
“He lived 25 blocks (in the other direction),” she said. “At first, I thought he just wanted to see my two brothers.”
Somewhere in those walks, love blossomed. They were married soon after graduation and moved to Florida. Things went fine until John turned 18 and was eligible for the draft. Sure enough, he received his notice and the Navy snatched him up.
The service pulled him away from Marge soon after she learned she was carrying their first child. She opted to move in with her parents in Washington, D.C. Her due date got closer.
Like any faithful wife, Marge wrote religiously twice a week.
John received none of the letters. Was she too busy? Was the mail slow? Every time mail call came, he said the other men got mail and he was left empty-handed.
“I figured it was because we were in transit, and they’d catch up to me in California. It took several days to get across the country by train,” he said. “Finally, when we got to California, about 40 miles north of San Francisco, we were there two or three weeks, I remember when every (mail delivery) came in. … Once we got aboard ship, I thought, ‘Boy, I’ll get a ton of mail now.’ ”
But nothing came.
Back in Washington, Marge knew something was wrong when John’s letters kept imploring her to write. She managed to get word to him that they now had a fine, healthy son.
“I was receiving his letters. He wasn’t getting mine,” she said. “He said, ‘Well, you could at least send me pictures of Gary.’ But I was. I was sending him letters and pictures and stamps, and he never got anything. … My dad tried everything under the sun to try and help us.”
The family implored the Navy for help, but it had more pressing issues to worry about.
“They said they would fix it, but they never did,” Marge said.
The Red Cross had no way of hunting down her letters. Her father stepped things up a notch and went through government channels. Finally, California Sen. Hiram Johnson’s staff got to the bottom of things and the mystery was solved: Another sailor, also by the name of John Dillon, who was stationed in Tennessee, was receiving Marge’s letters.
But no matter how hard the family pressed, the mail kept being delivered to the wrong man. At one point, the second John Dillon decided to answer Marge’s letters, no doubt spurred by the photos of herself that she’d included.
“He said he’d like to come out and be with me, you know,” Marge recalled, sounding incredulous. “I didn’t know who this guy was.”
Marge said she wanted nothing to do with the bold sailor in Tennessee, but her mailman couldn’t help but notice.
“He asked, ‘You have two husbands? One in Tennessee and one (on a ship)?’ ” she said. “I was, like, ‘No, no, no.’ “
Her John served nearly two years without ever getting a letter from his wife. To say he felt neglected would be an understatement.
“I figured I’d just stay in the service,” John said. Once discharged, he hurried to Washington and arrived at her parents’ house unannounced.
“He surprised me. He just came through the door and I was like, ‘What?’ ” Marge said, adding that he swept her up in his arms. “I couldn’t believe he was suddenly there. It was nice.”
The mix-up was explained away as John held his toddler son. Later, the second John Dillon in Tennessee returned all of Marge’s letters.
“So, we finally got them, all the letters I’d written to my husband,” she said.
By then, their importance was a moot point, and the couple just tossed them out. John had a 30-year career as a firefighter and attained the position of fire captain in Denver.
For the 70th anniversary vow renewal and dinner, arranged as a surprise by the couple’s sons and their wives, a duplicate set of letters was tied up with ribbon as a reminder of the mix-up.
“It wasn’t something we talked about,” Gary Dillon said. “I don’t think I even knew of it until I was, like, in my late 20s or so. It was just something that happened in the past. … it didn’t end up tragically, or I’d have another dad.”
Rick, who is 10 years younger than Gary, said he might have heard mention of it in his teens but didn’t learn the details until about a year ago.
“It’d be like calling today on a cellphone and nobody returning your call,” he said of the letters being misdirected.
Gary’s wife Marci said Marge would make little comments here and there about the letters through the years but that it wasn’t until she grew perplexed and pressed for specifics that she learned the whole story.
At the anniversary dinner, Marge commented on how easily her husband took in the truth that she’d been writing him all along, thinking of him daily and eager for his return from the war.
“Things could have turned out, you know, bad,” Marge said.
“Yeah, I would have hooked up with a geisha,” John quipped.
Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2949.