By Raiza Giorgi
The secret to a long and happy marriage for Creighton “Jim” Axtell and Phyllis Axtell is having respect for one another and having a good attitude, even in tough times.
The Solvang couple, who will celebrate 75 years of marriage in May, took some time to talk about their relationship and how they help one another.
Along with celebrating a milestone in their marriage, Jim is also turning 98 this year. As they sat at their kitchen table on a rainy morning, they helped one another communicate, as Phyllis’ eyesight isn’t as sharp as it used to be and Jim has a hard time hearing.
“We make the perfect person because I help her see things and she yells in my ear,” Jim laughed. “She always has a great disposition and we have always got along very well, even when times were hard.”
Phyllis pulled out two books and laid them on the table. Each was an autobiography of their lives and memories, including childhood photos and memories of what life was like in World War II.
Jim was born in Missouri, where his father was a telegraph operator for Western Union and his mother was a clerk.
“During those times everyone would gather around their radio sets and listen to FDR’s (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) fireside speeches. The change in technology since I was a child has amazed me,” Jim said.
When Jim graduated from high school he moved to Los Angeles to get involved in the war effort. He enlisted in the Air Force and then worked at Lockheed assembling parts. He spent more than 30 years there, eventually retiring as a manager.
Phyllis grew up in North Dakota as a farmer’s daughter and also moved to Los Angeles to join the war effort.
“Creighton (as she calls her husband) and I met through a friend and we just knew we wanted to spend time together. We would take day trips together, often to Mount Wilson (a peak in the San Gabriel Mountains). We just love traveling together,” she said as she grabbed her husband’s hand.
Phyllis got a job in the stock room at Lockheed and they married on May 26, 1943. The couple decided to go back to school so they spent their nights in classes, eventually earning master’s degrees.
“Phyllis is the smart one of us. I am the muscle,” Jim laughed as he flexed his arm.
She rolled her eyes and laughed.
When Jim was offered a position at Lockheed with top-secret responsibilities, he was asked if he wanted a good-paying job even though he couldn’t know what the job was until after he accepted. He said sure.
“I was taken to an isolated building each day and I couldn’t tell anyone, not even Phyllis, what we were doing,” he said.
He was part of a team developing jets that ended up producing the XP-80. The code name for the project was called “Skunk Works,” after a reference in the newspaper cartoon “Lil Abner.”
The XP-80 flew before the end of World War II, but it wasn’t used in combat until later.
“While I was in the Air Force we ended up as the first squadron that went to Hiroshima after they dropped the bomb. I can tell you, that is something I will never forget, just the utter destruction for as far as the eye could see. It was heartbreaking,” he said.
While at the company the couple and several others moved to a newly constructed neighborhood and they all decided to build their own houses on empty lots there.
“We all helped one another build our houses. Phyllis was up on the roof shingling it while I was inside working on the electrical stuff. Being married is a lot like building a house in that things don’t always go right, but you work it out together and get it done,” Jim said.
In 1959 the Axtells moved to Solvang when Jim accepted a position with Lockheed at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Phyllis decided to use her degree in education and became the principal at Ballard Elementary School for a few years. Then she went back to Lockheed as a technical editor for another 11 years before retiring in 1987.
In retirement they have literally traveled the world, exploring Europe several times and enjoying an African safari. They also loved being part of local hiking groups and volunteering.
“The Axtells are such great neighbors, and they are the epitome of the Greatest Generation. They are lovely people,” said neighbor Chris Elmerick.
Since they can’t get around very well now, they enjoy meals brought to them each day by Atterdag Village of Solvang’s Meals on Wheels program.
“Seeing our family and beautiful grandchildren are always a delight. We know we have led a great life together. It’s not perfect, but I think as close as you can get,” Jim said as his lunch was arriving.