Still living the adventure after 70 years

July 5, 2011

By Laura Geggel

Issaquah couple celebrates anniversary milestone

At age 94, Ralph Upton has moved 29 times and has been married to his wife for 70 years.

Mary Upton (left) and her husband Ralph share the story of the early decades of their 70 years together. By Greg Farrar

“I think that my dad is unbelievable, an eternal optimist,” his daughter, Beth Upton said. “He has grit.”

Her mother balances the equation.

“Dad was the extrovert and adventurer, but Mom kept the home fires burning,” Beth said. “She kept things calm and paid attention to the details to make things work.”

Both were born before World War I ended, and their faith and adaptability have propelled them through the years.

Back in the day

Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Phelps, born in 1916, grew up as an only child. Her mother had grown up on a farm, and every summer Betty would work there, helping with the cow, horses, sheep and pear trees.

“Near haying time, they’d put me right up front by the horse’s reins so I could drive the wagon,” she said. “It was fun.”

During the school year, she noticed a boy named Ralph Upton, an athletic boy who attended her high school and aimed to get into the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Ralph Upton was born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1917, the youngest of three brothers. As a youth, he would play sports in the street with his neighbors, and he picked up the trumpet.

One year, he spent a summer with his aunt and uncle in Michigan, helping his uncle operate an ice cream factory. By the end of the summer of 1929, he had gained 15 pounds from his ice cream snacks, “giving my mother Lillian fits as to how she would clothe me for school,” Ralph wrote in his memoir, “An Old Soldier’s Story.”

That same summer, Ralph saw the Army Reserve drill team march through Jackson, Mich., giving him a taste of the armed services. That, compounded with talking to his high school music teacher who had been in the Army, gave Ralph the idea of attending West Point.

After graduating from high school, Betty went to Buffalo State Teachers College. Her beau, Ralph, asked New York Congressman James Mead for an appointment to West Point. The congressman agreed, and Ralph hit the books, preparing for the exam.

“I was studying like crazy to learn all of the academics that we would have for that particular examination,” he said.

He passed the mental examination with flying colors, but failed the physical test because he had albumin in his urine. The protein usually appears when a disease is present, although now doctors know it can appear in healthy people, too. Ralph’s doctor removed his tonsils, blaming them for the albumin, and Mead appointed him to take the West Point test again.

Once more, he failed because of albumin.

West Point and marriage

Frustrated, Ralph concentrated on studying at Buffalo State Teachers College, where he continued to date Betty. After one year, luck dealt him another chance at attending West Point.

The student who had taken his place in 1936 had flunked out and decided not to return. Mead agreed to let Ralph take the student’s place, so long as he passed the physical exam. In fall 1937, Ralph proudly passed the test and enrolled in West Point. Betty took a teaching job at a school near West Point so they could continue to see one another. Still, dating a West Point man had its restrictions.

“I could walk her down to the edge of West Point, but that’s as far as I could go,” Ralph said. “Those were the rules. Otherwise, you would get demerits.”

The two became engaged in 1939, and married a year later on June 28, 1941, shortly after Ralph graduated.

After the wedding ceremony, the couple jumped into their Chevrolet five-passenger coupe and drove to a cottage on a lake for their honeymoon. Along the way, they stopped for dinner at The Krebs, paying $5 each for a three-course meal.

A moving military family

From there, Ralph had a colorful military career and helped Betty raise their three daughters, Margaret, Nancy and Beth.

Ralph participated in both the European theater in World War II and in the Korean War in the 1950s, and attended two colleges — the Industrial College for the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C. and Harvard Business School in Boston.

The military took the family across the country — including to Oklahoma, Hawaii and New Jersey — and the world, to Panama. During one assignment there, Ralph delivered a message to Secretary of State George Marshall about the revolution in Colombia.

In 1965, he retired from the military after 26 years of service.

The family lived in Michigan for many years. Ralph worked as a law firm manager, engineer and hospital administrator. In the winters, he and Betty vacationed in Florida. In the summer, they stayed at a Michigan lakeside house they dubbed “The Eagle’s Nest.” After all of their daughters left home, Ralph and Betty moved to Providence Point Issaquah to be closer to Beth, Nancy and Margaret in 2002.

The scenery “reminded us of West Point,” Ralph wrote.

Living in Issaquah

Now, both in their mid-90s and silvered haired, Ralph and Betty support each other in their daily habits. Their good friends Chuck and Tanya Smeton attend Faith United Methodist Church in Issaquah and bible study with them. In July, the Uptons are moving to Issaquah’s University House.

Ralph and Betty attended Ralph’s 70th reunion at West Point in May, and they reminisced about the past.

Ralph teased her about taking care of the details, especially the bills.

“I call her my F.O.” he said. “My financial officer.”

“I’ve been with him so long,” Betty said, “from the time we were teenagers.”

She thanked him for their long lives together.

“He followed his desires,” she said. “He accomplished his goals.”

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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