A shaky first impression led to a 60-year marriage for West Slope cowboy and schoolteacher
December 27, 2013
Intro: Patricia O'Neil was a young schoolteacher when she met Bill Fender. Neither one admits to love at first sight but after a brief courtship they were married in 1954. This July, Pat and Bill Fender would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, but on Thanksgiving day Bill died quietly at home after a prolonged illness.
On Sept. 14 of this year, the Mt. Sopris Historical Society invited Pat and Bill to a gathering of valley elders to share their life stories. The following interviews were conducted separately.
Pat: I was born in Denver, but my family moved to New York and then St. Louis. I can remember as a kid dreaming about moving west and marrying a cowboy. I always knew I wanted to live in the West.
Gallacher: How did you know?
Pat: I read so much Zane Grey. I remember when Zane Grey died I ran up to my room and I cried for about an hour.
So the first job I took when I started teaching was in the West – Clifton, Arizona.
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Clifton was a little copper mining town owned by Phelps-Dodge, the mining company. The miners were paid in scrip. They spent it at the company store or they didn't eat. You cooperated with Phelps-Dodge or you went under.
I only spent a year there and moved back to Denver. That summer I spent time at the Perry-Mansfield Camp in Steamboat Springs. That's where I met Bob Perry, and he offered me a job teaching high school English in Carbondale.
Bob and his wife, Ditty, gave me a place to live. I had a room up on the third floor of their house with windows looking out on Mount Sopris.
I hadn't been in Carbondale very long when Ditty invited me to go to the Garfield County Fair with her and her brother, Darcy. When I got in the car there was Bill Fender, and I sat as far away from him as I could.
Gallacher: So it was a setup.
Pat: Yes, it was rigged.
Gallacher: What was that first meeting like? You must have warmed up to the guy.
Pat: I was very nervous. I'm sure he was nervous, too.
Gallacher: So when you finally got together with Bill was there a particular hard time or did it go pretty smoothly?
Pat: I had never done any cooking. I burned up three double boilers that I hid under the deck of the first house we lived in. The only thing I could make was scrambled eggs and brownies. Bill knew a whole lot more about cooking than I did.
Gallacher: How did you finally learn how to cook?
Pat: Well, I got a whole lot better when I started learning how to read a recipe. But I remember one night about a month after we were married. Bill decided to invite a friend and his son to dinner. And all I could think was, "I can't feed them. I can't make anything come out of the oven at the same time. What am I going to do?" I was terrified and in a panic.
But Bill reassured me. He said, "I'll help you, and we'll get through this." And we did, but I'll tell you if you don't have a sense of humor there is no way you're going to get through anything.
Gallacher: So what is it you love most about Bill?
Pat: Well, I love him because he is so ornery and partly because we have been married so long.
Gallacher: So when you think back to that little girl that you once were, dreaming about the West, did that dream turn out to be everything you wanted it to be?
Pat: Oh, yes, I wouldn't have missed it for anything.
Bill: My dad came west from "Ioway" and went up into the Dakotas to help thrash on a thrashing crew. He finally made his way to the Roaring Fork Valley. His half-brother, Ira, was already here, and he had a ranch on Missouri Heights. Ira had three boys and a daughter. They all had ranches up there.
Dad showed up about the time they were getting ready to pick potatoes. Well, he had never picked a potato in his life, and he wasn't in very good shape, but he was bound and determined to keep up with Ira and his boys. I guess he did, but he said his back just killed him for two days after that.
Gallacher: It sounds like your dad was pretty strong-willed. What was he like?
Bill: He was pretty heavy-handed, and he believed in work. He thought a kid should work for nothin' til he was 21 years old. He and I had a few debates over the years about a kid's pay. He kept ya busy and he always got the last word.
Gallacher: What about your mom?
Bill: She was real nice. When we were young, my brother Ray, my sister Mae and I all got scarlet fever or the measles. We were all real sick. Ray and I recovered, but Mae never did. It seemed like she was always sick after that. So Mom spent a lot of her time takin' care of Mae.
We had a doc here in Carbondale that wasn't too clever. We had vets here, later on, that were smarter than he was. Dad finally built a house in Glenwood and they moved so Mae could be closer to the hospital. But she didn't get better, so they finally took her to a hospital in Denver. She kept complaining about her ear but the doctors couldn't find anything.
Come to find out the mastoid bone in her ear was breaking down. They got a doctor in Grand Junction to come and do the surgery. Well, during the surgery, the doctor made a mistake and cut a major artery and my sister bled to death. Mae's death sent my mom over the edge.
Mom had been my sister's caregiver for years, and I think she decided that she couldn't go on without her. She finally took her own life.
Gallacher: Oh, I'm so sorry. That must have been really hard on you.
Bill: It was hard on all of us, but that's just a part of life. You look at it and you move on. You can't dwell on it or it'll ruin your life. So we just had to let it go.
Gallacher: How old were you?
Bill: I was out of the service by then. I was probably in my late 20s.
Gallacher: How did your dad manage?
Bill: He never said much, but you can imagine what it would be like to lose your daughter and then your wife. Yeah, he went through hell. He eventually married an ol' gal that he knew growin' up in "Ioway." They were married for several years, and then she passed away. So Dad never had it easy.
Gallacher: I was just talking with Pat about the first time she met you. Do you want to tell your version?
Bill: Well, we were goin' down in Darcy Brown's car. His sister, Ditty, sat in the front seat, and Pat and I sat in the back. She was on one side as far as she could get and I was on the other. Didn't say much.
Gallacher: Well, she said she always wanted to marry a cowboy, and I guess you qualified. You spent a lot of your time working horses and …
Bill: … punchin' cows. I don't know if I was a cowboy or not, I was a little bit of everything. I was buckin' bales and chasin' cows mostly.
Gallacher: Did you work outside all of your life?
Bill: All my life. My brother Ray and I ranched together for a few years, and then we bought him out and ranched on our own.
Gallacher: What has it been like for you to watch houses fill up the fields where you spent your life?
Bill: It's been bad. But when I look back on it, I sure had an easier time ranchin' than my dad did. We had equipment, but Dad did everything with horses. When he finally bought the first tractor in the family, his brother told my dad he had to run it because he wasn't gonna touch it.
Gallacher: How has agriculture enriched your life?
Bill: Well, I really liked the cattle business. I can't say as I liked hayin' much but that goes along with it. I'm in real rotten shape from hayin'. I got a bad back that looks like an S curve, and I got a neck that's glued together. So I ain't in too gooda shape from ranchin'.
Gallacher: Has it been good to you in other ways?
Bill: Oh, absolutely!
Gallacher: What are you proudest of?
Bill: Well, we built the ranch up, and we bought three parcels of land, and we sold them all for an astronomical figure, and we raised two great kids while we were doin' it.
Gallacher: So the cowboy and the schoolteacher have done pretty well?
Bill: Yes, we've had a good life. ❖