Letters from the queen of England, prime minister of Canada and the Governor General are among a stack of growing congratulations for John and Irene Hillman. The Oak Bay couple celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary yesterday.
The letters have been coming from all areas, the three already mentioned plus mayors and MLAs and more.
“They all send a greeting when the know about it,” John said. It’s been very pleasant to be recognized.”
Since the letters started coming 15 years ago, they’ve amassed an impressive stack.
Their story starts during wartime, in a mess hall on an English airforce base. Irene worked for the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes while John was sent there to decompress and teach after nine months in France.
“I know it was war, but Cornwall was a nice place to be,” Irene said.
Irene’s elder sister Mary was also in NAAFI and met a Canadian military man Lloyd, and the foursome enjoyed some spectacular times, as was common in the face of uncertainty in those days.
“We had a big hangar converted for entertainment,” John said. “It was just one of those things. We had a regular foursome, we used to go dancing.”
After a few months courting, the four started on another plan. All they needed was time off together and suddenly the sisters were wed in a double ceremony, where Jim and Lloyd served as each other’s best man.
“We all managed to get some leave (time off) together and went to Irene’s home for Christmas and got married,” John said. John and Irene Hillman, and Irene’s sister Mary and Lloyd Harvey (both now deceased) married on Dec. 27, 1941.
They held a nice well-attended reception, John said. “It was wartime, wartime rations, you couldn’t have a big do.”
“There were a lot of people there, it was quite nice really,” Irene added.
They were married a year when John was shipped overseas for what turned out to be more than three years.
“We had 12 months together then I was posted abroad,” John said. He wound up in Africa, Italy and finally Burma before coming home more than three years later. “We just dealt with it.”
He returned in 1946 and was medically discharged a couple years later.
“We started all over again,” John said. “My parents put up with us for a little while.”
Then he got a job with English Electric, where he worked for more than three decades until his retirement.
Irene worked in shops, then as a surgical ward clerk in a hospital. “It was very interesting,” she said.
Mary became a Canadian war bride, travelling to Winnipeg after the war. John, Irene and their daughter Lynn came over for Mary and Lloyd’s daughters wedding. Lynn fell smitten with the country and returned to live with her aunt after finishing up schooling in England.
In 1981, the couples held a double 40th anniversary party in a Winnipeg mess.
When daughter Lynn and son-in-law Ralph (another military man) came home to Canada from Europe, the Hillmans left England for Canada in what turned out to be a four-year stint from 1988.
“We came up and joined them,” Jim said. “Then he was posted back to Europe so we went home.”
When Lynn and Ralph returned to Canada, so did the Hillmans. Irene still misses England, they’ve returned for three visits since moving here 17 years ago, but don’t foresee more trips these days.
Two grand-daughters, one great-granddaughter and one great-grandson later “we’re still good friends. Aren’t we?” he says, tossing the question across the Hillmans’ bright Oak Bay living room.
“Oh I think so,” Irene responds with dry English wit.
“You have to work at it, you’re two individual people,” John said. “You recognize the other person is living a life of their own.”
“It’s not always so happy,” cautions Irene.
“Yes we have our moments, but we laugh at them and we get over it,” John said.
For a dozen years now, John, 97, has served as president of the board in the Beach Drive multi-unit building where he and Irene live. There they hold a couple community events a year, including a Christmas dinner and Canada Day barbecue.
A few friends in the building will join the Hillmans for a drink or two on their anniversary, and the entire family will head for a dinner out to celebrate on or near the day. “The last two or three years we’ve been to the Keg,” John said.
Did you know?
• NAAFI is an organization created by the British government in 1921 to run recreational establishments needed by the British Armed Forces, and to sell goods to servicemen and their families. It runs clubs, bars, shops, supermarkets, launderettes, restaurants, cafés and other facilities on most British military bases and also canteens on board Royal Navy ships