GRANDVIEW Willard and Cathy Mears were married 42 year ago, but they met 15 years earlier at the Yakima Valley Fair at Grandview. They refer to that day as the start of their relationship, even though there was a 13-year gap between the events.
In 1961, when the couple met at the fair, both had attended every fair they could. Cathy still hasn’t missed a fair. Willard was forced to miss in the 1968-69 time frame while fighting in Vietnam.
The couple doesn’t remember dates and events the same. On the eve of his 77th birthday, Willard says he struggles to remember the distant past.
Willard was never hurt by enemy fire, but later, he had to deal with a prostate cancer doctors tied to agent orange, a defoliant used by the United States in Vietnam jungles. He was at the demilitarized zone during the Tet Offensive of 1968, one of the bloodiest events in U.S. military history.
“She’s the one who remembers everything,” Willard said, recalling that Cathy noticed him before he did her. That could be because he was four years her senior.
Cathy concurred. She said she noticed Willard when they ended up at the same 4-H functions, especially during the cake walk.
“I saw to it that he won a cake or two,” she said.
Still, they hadn’t officially met.
That happened in 1961. Cathy had placed her exhibit on the open class vegetable display. Then Willard came walking into the exhibit hall, the skating rink at the park now occupied by Yakima Valley College, with his vegetables.
Willard had to meet Cathy that day. She was responsible for registering exhibitors and their exhibits. They were putting his tomatoes on the display table when they had their first conversation.
During the next 13 years, Cathy went off to college and became an educator. Willard stayed on the hop farm on which he was raised — the Segal Ranch — and eventually went off to the army and Vietnam.
In the early days of Vietnam, Willard received letters from home. His and Cathy’s friend Clarice Grove encouraged Cathy and other friends to write.
“I wrote the first line and then put the letter down,” Cathy said
She never finished that letter. She went on with the education career she had launched in the Sunnyside School District.
After his time in service of the country, Willard came home to the Segal Ranch and, in short time, took over as manager. His father had decided to retire.
“Then one night he called to ask if I’d go to a New Year’s party with him,” Cathy said.
A friend of the pair, Karma Jean Frank, invited him to the party but insisted he bring a date, like maybe the still available Cathy.
Cathy went with Willard to that party to bring in the year 1975. She said that was the night she knew he was the one. She believes things clicked for Willard that night, too. He asked her for a second date.
“He asked, ‘Do you mind riding in a pickup?’” Cathy said. “I said, ‘I’m from the farm. I’ve used many a pickup.’”
The new Mr. and Mrs. Mears married on Oct. 2 1976, 15 years after meeting at the fair, which remains one of the most precious things they have in common. They haven’t missed once in their 42 years together.
“It’s like a big family reunion,” Cathy said.
“You know,” Willard said. “The friends who live near you but you still see only once a year.”
Recalling the years they competed with each other and Jerry Frank, a friend of both, the competition was keen. Cathy remembers beating the other two. Willard simply doesn’t remember.
“That was a long time ago,” he said.
It doesn’t matter now. With marriage, the Mears became a Yakima Valley Fair and Rodeo team. The community has been able to count on their volunteerism throughout their marriage.
Today Cathy serves on the Yakima Valley Fair and Rodeo Foundation Board. Willard serves on the Foundation Board and the Fair and Rodeo Board. And Cathy continues to compete in open class.
“Our daughter-in-law helps me make jams — strawberry, apricot and raspberry,” she said.
The Mears continue to influence the horticulture competition. Their two sons competed all the years they had the opportunity. The four grandchildren have shown vegetables. The 21-year-old is off to college, but the 18, 12 and 9-year-olds will show again this year.
They haven’t been on their own, though. The kids and grandkids have raised their vegetables at grandpa and grandma’s country home. The grandkids have six raised (to the level of a table) vegetable beds from which to choose.
“You know how it is when you reach this age,” Willard said. “It’s hard to bend down to the ground.”
But nothing gets in the way of supporting the fair. It has always been special to Willard and Cathy Mears.