“After Twenty Years,” Ensign, Sept. 1985, 49
They were married in Las Vegas under the glitter of neon lights, not for time and all eternity, but “till death do us part.”
“Come as you are,” the signs read. “No waiting. Witnesses furnished. Only $7.00.” So Bill and Val were married.
It wasn’t as if they were in their teens. Bill Flemmer had a degree in engineering from New York University, where he had been an athlete in pole vaulting and basketball. Valene Geddes was twenty-two and had just completed her third year of college. Even so, they returned to the “little church” a few hours later to see if they could have the marriage annulled. Valene knew that what she had done would be terribly disappointing to her parents.
They were told that it was too late, and that their only alternative would be to set up residence in Nevada for six weeks.
That, of course, wasn’t the answer. At least they loved each other. They would try to make the most of their hasty decision.
To say that Val’s parents were shocked would be an understatement. They were stunned. Everyone was stunned. “Not Val!” they said. Val was the last girl anyone would expect to marry outside the temple. It was simply incredible! Bill not only wasn’t a Latter-day Saint, he didn’t even believe in God. But perhaps he would join the Church—at least he had no Word of Wisdom hangups. After a close call with pneumonia, he had pragmatically shaken off tobacco and liquor as “millstones about his neck.”
But Bill was not interested in the Church. Bill and Val had met in Utah. Shortly after Bill and Val’s first date, Bill and his best friend had been involved in a grinding auto accident one dark, rainy night. His friend was killed. When Bill regained consciousness six weeks later, he discovered that his right leg had been amputated at the hip.
“I might have become discouraged,” he says, “if a man in a wheelchair hadn’t visited me one day. He was paralyzed from the waist down. From then on I blocked out of my mind the fact that I had lost one leg and concentrated on the fact that I still had one good one.” Later, with a pair of hand braces, Bill learned to get around with some of the agility of the athlete he had been before the accident.
Val visited Bill often at the hospital, and their friendship blossomed into love. “Bill,” she confided on one visit, “I wanted to call in the elders to administer to you, but your sisters wouldn’t allow it. But I’m confident the Lord spared your life for a purpose.”
“I hate to disagree,” Bill retorted, “but I don’t think the Lord had anything to do with it. I pulled through on my own, without the help of the elders or the Lord if there is a Lord.”
After their marriage, Valene’s hopes that Bill might join the Church steadily dissipated. Bill started his own trucking business and ran it until a driver wrecked one of his semitrailers, setting him back financially. Then he turned to salesmanship, and as top man in a nationwide competition within his company, he was rewarded with a brand new Cadillac. Eventually, Bill and Valene moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Bill worked hard, and he didn’t try to keep Valene from going to Church. “The fact that Bill had no religion may have proved a virtue in disguise,” she says. “At least he didn’t object to the children being baptized, or even to my taking them to church.”
But some Sundays, there was deep dissension in their home. “Sunday for years was the worst day of the week for me,” Valene remembers. “Should I stay home with Bill and watch TV on a blustery winter day? Should I join him at golf on the Sabbath? Should I send the girls to church and drive with Bill through the beautiful countryside in the springtime and summer? Sunday was Bill’s day at home, and throughout our marriage we have always done things together and not gone our separate ways. Yet I was determined to be in church with the girls.”
“After a few years,” says Bill, “I started going to church most of the time. I didn’t worry, knowing that my mind was closed to religion anyhow. I even took the missionary discussions, not once, but many times. I don’t suppose anyone has been a greater disappointment to more missionaries than I have. Eventually they had to write me off as hopeless.”
Valene’s brothers and sisters were all active in the Church. They often tried to talk to Bill about the Church, but he would respond with, “I don’t buy that.” Finally, after nearly twenty years, all of them gave up—all except Bill’s father-in-law, Dad Geddes. Whenever Val and Bill came to visit, he would talk to Bill about the Church. But Bill’s ready answer was always: “No, Dad. I don’t need it!”
Then misfortune fell. While visiting her grandfather’s farm in Idaho, Bill and Val’s daughter Linda got her hair caught in the universal joint of a post-hole digger. The machine nearly scalped her before it miraculously stopped. It was this accident that ultimately led to Bill’s conversion.
When Bill and Val came from Cincinnati to be with their daughter, Bill was amazed at the concern the members of the Church showed for him and his family. “I couldn’t believe they cared so much,” he said. He saw the priesthood at work and watched Linda recover completely. But he still wouldn’t admit that the Lord had anything to do with it.
During the next two years he continued to be impressed with the brotherly love he felt from members of the Church. “Church members treated me as if I was something special,” he says. “The missionaries continued to put their arms around me but seldom spoke of religion. My in-laws accepted me as an equal, treating me with kindness and love and affection. I began asking myself, ‘What is the source of this strange brotherhood? Is it the gospel?’”
The couple’s five daughters were growing to maturity, and Valene was becoming concerned. Cindy was attending Brigham Young University, and Linda would be attending BYU next year. She knew that Bill needed to make his own decision about joining the Church. But how could she let him know how important the Church and its teachings were to her? Finally she said, “Bill, I read in the Ensign of a woman who had to wait outside the temple while her daughter was being married. Our daughters are determined to be married in the temple, and I know they will be. I am not going to say anything more to you about joining the Church. The decision is yours. I just want you to know that I want to do everything in the world to join them in the temple.”
Bill said nothing. But his experience of looking in at the Church from the outside was drawing to a fruitful close. He had seen the gospel in action in the examples of his wife, his daughters, his wife’s family, and his neighbors. And the next year when they made their annual visit from Ohio to Idaho, Dad Geddes said, “Bill, you know Leslie Ann is being baptized tomorrow. This is your last child; you are running out of daughters. Don’t you think it’s about time you were baptized?”
This time, instead of replying, “No, Dad, I don’t need it,” Bill said simply, “Well, I don’t think so … but what would I need to do?”
Permission from the Flemmers’ bishop was obtained, and the next day a large, happy crowd of friends and neighbors watched as Dad Geddes led not only Leslie Ann, but also her father, Bill, into the waters of baptism.
“I couldn’t point to any particular thing, other than the profound love of my family and relatives and friends, that brought me into the Church, except that I knew the Church was true,” he says. “My most meaningful exposure to the Church was in 1954 when I married my lovely, understanding wife, who was, over the years, the stalwart example I needed to fully expose me to the gospel. Then there was her wonderful family, who also set a fine example. Seeing five beautiful daughters brought up in the Church had its effect as well. Then there was my understanding and patient father-in-law, assuring me each year on our vacations in Idaho that the gospel was true and they would like me to be baptized and be with them for time and eternity. Many close friends, too numerous to mention, were influential. You put all this together, and a conversion comes, even for a soul so rebellious and proud as mine.”
On 23 August 1975, Val and Bill and their five daughters were sealed in the Logan Temple for time and all eternity. The next day, as the Flemmer family provided the program for sacrament meeting in the Banida Ward in Idaho, Valene spoke of temple marriage. “I’ve been blessed, but I’ve paid a heavy price in mental anguish and suffering,” she said. “Marry in the temple to begin with, if you want the greatest assurance of happiness in this life and eternal happiness in the world to come.”
Bill, too, bore his testimony of temple marriage, and of the examples of his family that had led him to the gospel—after twenty years. “It was while we knelt at the altar, surrounded by our loving daughters, that I began to grasp the transcendent beauty of the gospel,” he said. “What a priceless blessing—to be married to the right person in the right place by the right authority, knowing that if we proved faithful to our temple covenants, we would be together as a celestial family for time and all eternity! The Holy Spirit bore testimony to my soul that this could be a reality.”