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Landmark anniversary: open house to celebrate 70 years together Saturday

Bob and Phyllis Atkins were surrounded by their children, in-laws, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the 2006 photo. In front from left are Sarah Atkins, Carly Atkins, Baden Hilty, Jacob Johnston, Sarah Johnston, Robert Atkins, Leslie Atkins, Phyllis Atkins; back, John Hoggatt, Emma Hilty, Andrew French, John Atkins, Stephanie Johnston, Taylor Atkins, Paul Christianson, Ashley Atkins, Geoff Hilty, Rowan Hilty, Laurie Hilty, Bill Hilty, Tess Hilty Christiansen, Nora French, Sean French, Mark Atkins...1 / 4
Bob and Phyllis Atkins will celebrate 70 years together at an open house on Saturday at the St. Croix Valley United Methodist Church in Lakeland, Minn. The couple lives in Hudson with their youngest daughter, Sarah Atkins, pictured above, and her husband, John Hoggatt.2 / 4
Bob's charm overshadowed some missteps on their first date back in February 1942 that included his car, pictured here, running out of gas and getting Phyllis home just before dawn. Despite that, Phyllis said her parents liked Bob from the start.3 / 4
Bob and Phyllis Atkins have admired former President Jimmy Carter and Roselynn Carter and had the opportunity to meet them while traveling in 1992.4 / 4

Bob Atkins said he knew the first time he saw his wife Phyllis that she was something special.

It was February 1942 and Bob and his friends were a "girl short" for a kind of group date to go to the movies in St. Paul. One of the girls said she knew someone to call.

Phyllis, just 17, agreed to go. "But I didn't think it was any big deal. In fact I think I was wearing a kerchief on my head because my hair was wet. I didn't think he noticed me. I was kind of quiet and shy."

But notice her he did and he wasted no time in calling her the next day for a real date. "I knew one of the other guys had his eye on her too so I needed to act fast," said Bob. He was 19.

Bob said he initially thought their relationship would be platonic but romance quickly blossomed. Despite their young age, the couple was engaged in August and married on Oct. 30, 1942. They spent their honeymoon at the Lowell Inn in Stillwater and attended a U of M Gopher football game.

Bob was drafted in 1943 and when the war ended, the couple settled into their first home purchased for $3,200 in Rose Township, now Roseville, a St. Paul suburb. Bob earned a degree in engineering with the help of the GI Bill and the couple started their family.

The Atkins had seven children: Laurie, Mark, Steve, John, Kent, Leslie and Sarah. The years were busy ones for both Bob and Phyllis. Bob worked for a time as an engineer but spent most of his career in sales and marketing with 3M Company in St. Paul. In addition to spending time at home with her children, Phyllis also worked, first as keypunch operator for IBM, in secretarial jobs and finally with 3M as well.

Their family vacations are among the happiest memories for the couple. With a big family, expenses were always a concern, so they rented a tent trailer and did most of their trips by car, putting on, Bob estimates, around 24,000 miles.

The Atkins believe their family was and is like many others. They had dreams for their children that didn't always pan out but that was OK.

"Each of our kids is an individual and we tried to treat them that way. There were times of joy and some hard times but we relied on each other. All in all looking back, it has been a wonderful life," said Bob.

One of those hard times was the loss of son Kent, just 22, in a 1977 car accident. A portrait of Kent done by his brother Mark, hangs in the Atkins home on First Street.

While a 70th wedding anniversary is rather rare these days, the Atkins aren't all that surprised. "When we got married we expected it would be for life." said Bob who marks his 90th birthday this year.

Phyllis said the initial years of marriage aren't the real test. "You're madly in love to start but as time goes on -- that's when you have to work things out, be forgiving of each other and be careful not to disregard each other's feelings and, of course, be faithful."

The Atkins live with their youngest daughter, Sarah. She wells up when she describes her parents. "My dad is honest and forthright with lots of integrity. What's right is right and things are pretty black and white with him but he has always been there to love us."

And her mother -- "She is the sweetest lady I've ever met. She is always there for anyone in need, whether it is her family or total strangers. She is so sympathetic and the kindest person I know."

Bob Atkins says he and his wife were lucky to get married and raise their family during what he calls a "golden age" when fathers could work and support their families and mothers could choose to stay at home if they wanted. "It is much more difficult for families these days. I have been very fortunate -- she has too."

The Atkins will hold a 70th anniversary celebration on Saturday from 1-5 p.m. at St. Croix Valley United Methodist Church in Lakeland, Minn.

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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