Couple celebrates anniversary, 60 years and counting
August 21, 2012
By Lillian O'Rorke
When Kate Middleton wowed the world in her French Chantilly lace and satin gazar Alexander McQueen wedding dress another bride had already walked down the aisle 59 years earlier wearing the same style.
Betty Gentsch keeps a photo of that day, Aug. 30 1952, next to her bed and has had many visitors comment on Betty’s “Kate Middleton dress.”
“Though I suspect the lace in her dress cost a lot more,” Betty said with a smile.
She paid $125 for her dress and, while she was not moving to Kensington Palace, Betty was marrying her prince.
Tom Gentsch and the former Betty Foster grew up around the corner from each other on Long Island. For his 7th birthday, Betty presented Tom with a fishing creel. The angler’s wicker basket has never actually housed Tom’s catch, but he has held on to it for 78 years and counting. That same 5-year-old girl later wrote in her seventh-grade diary that she would one day marry Tom Gentsch.
So three years later, when Tom phoned Betty to ask her to spend New Years Eve 1944 with him at the movies, her answer was yes.
“That’s about as much excitement as you could get in those days,” Betty said.
The two rode the train to the next town over from Merrick, N.Y., and watched Gene Kelly’s “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” What started out as a first date turned into a lifelong tradition of going, just the two of them, to see a New Year’s Eve movie.
After high school the two continued to date one another. Betty studied journalism at St. Lawrence University and eventually moved on to earn her Bachelor’s degree and certification in nursing from Columbia University.
Meanwhile, Tom attended Yale Medical School. Originally, his plans were to become an urologist, he explained, but that all changed when world-renowned pioneer of cardiovascular surgery, William Glenn — or Bill as Tom calls him — took the young medical student under his wing. At a time when doctors were first figuring out how to make blood bypass the heart during surgery, Tom graduated and went on to become one of the first cardiovascular surgeons in the country. However, he is not one to boast.
“He’s never wanted much attention about it,” said the couple’s oldest son, Tom Gentsch Jr. “The spotlight wasn’t what he was interested in. He was just trying to do good medicine.”
He may not have been one for flourishes and fanfare, but when Tom decided to buy Betty an engagement ring, he didn’t cut corners.
“It was just what I wanted. But then when he gave it to me it really was so beautiful, I got mad at him because I thought he had gotten it at the 5 and 10 store,” Betty said. “I didn’t see how he could get me one so beautiful. And he kept saying, ‘No, it’s real, it’s real.’”
The two were engaged on Aug. 22, 1950, and said “I do” two years later. Nursing students at the time were not allowed to marry while in school. Therefore, the day Betty graduated from Columbia was Tom’s favorite day, he explained, because it meant she would finally be his bride.
The two built a life together and raised four sons — Tom, Richard, John and David. Tom’s career often meant long hours at the hospital, but for two weeks a year he would steal away with his family for a vacation.
“We were never at want for anything. We weren’t the richest kids on the block and we weren’t the poorest,” said their oldest son, explaining that his parents taught their children to contribute to the community and ultimately gave them the tools to build a meaningful future. “They guided us on a path where everybody ended up in a good place. I am forever in their debt for paying attention to that.”
Once the boys were grown and out of the house, Tom and Betty finally got the chance to do something they had been dreaming of for years — putting their skills to work where they were badly needed. Beginning in 1981, the two spent six to eight weeks every year providing medical services in places like Cameroon, Madagascar, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which at that point was called Zaire.
“It was a good time in our lives,” Betty said. “Sometimes, when we’d get in these little planes and fly from one bush hospital to another, I’d have second thoughts. But things always went well.”
With one son and two grandchildren living in the area, Betty and Tom moved to Issaquah in 1999. Two years ago, their oldest, Tom Jr., came for a visit and went for a picnic with them to Gold Creek Pond, outside of Snoqualmie.
“As we walked the trail from the parking lot to the picnic area, they held hands the entire way,” he wrote in an email. “At that time, the moment struck me as symbolic of how they had walked down life’s path together, never ahead of one another, always side-by-side.”