RANGELY I Two recliners stand sentinel in the small living room apartment, a coffee table between them. On and above the table are mementos of two lives with more time together than apart: photos of long-grown children, a shared box of tissues and matching floral coffee cups that double as decorations.
The apartment at Rangely’s Eagle Crest Assisted Living is the latest stop in a journey that began in Paramount, Calif., in 1959. It’s different than anything Bob and Virginia “Ginny” Dunker have known in all their years of marriage.
This place has become a new sort of home.
The Dunkers celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary at Eagle Crest on Aug. 1, when staff served a steak dinner complete with linen and candles, flowers and a framed photo of “Bob + Ginny” drawn in sand.
It’s not where the Dunkers envisioned they’d be celebrating this milestone. Ongoing health issues brought Ginny to Eagle Crest two years ago this month and, in December 2012, Bob joined her from Massadona, where the couple had lived for the better part of 15 years.
In the last two years, Bob and Ginny have found a certain peace in the shared space. Now it’s just the two of them, talking about things they never had time to discuss before—like the 55-year journey they’re still on.
“Before, we were too busy to talk about all of that,” Ginny said. “Now we get to share everything. We share what we’ve gone through. We didn’t do that before because there was always somebody around.”
Not that the Dunkers would change the past. Bob had his eye on Ginny before she ever knew he existed, when both of them worked for Douglas Oil Co. in Paramount. When Bob’s boss made a second appeal for Ginny to give a blind date a try—she had already rejected Bob’s phone call—she acquiesced.
On that first date, Bob responded readily to Ginny’s flippant request to “just get lost” on the roads around Paramount. Then he took her out for a chocolate Coke and fries with gravy.
“He was never lost,” Ginny recalled. “I was, but he wasn’t. The next time he wanted to go out, he called me up and said, ‘I’ve got a few coins in my pocket. Would you like to get in my wheels and go to the flick?’ I’d never heard anyone say ‘coins,’ so I said yes.”
Ginny went on one date with someone else before settling on Bob for good. Three months later, just three days after Ginny’s 19th birthday, the two were married in a small Catholic ceremony in Los Angeles.
In those first years, Bob and Ginny worked on making it as a couple—and a family— their own. They were married just a year before they left Paramount to try country living in northern California. Although an aunt and uncle lived across the mountain, Bob, Ginny and new baby Melissa mostly had each other.
“I grew up,” Ginny said. “I learned how to depend on myself and on him. I think that’s how we were married for so long. We weren’t around my family or his family. We only had each other.”
Eventually, the pull of family became too strong, especially once children Terry and Mark were born. The Dunkers returned to Paramount in 1967, but they weren’t the same people they’d been when they left. An independent streak had colored their way of thinking and living.
That independence, among other traits, formed the Dunkers’ child-raising philosophy as they set about raising their own five: Melissa, Terry, Mark and, later, Matt and Dan. Respect was paramount, as was privacy and individuality. It was OK to have differences and those could be worked through, daughter Terry said. But conflict never trumped loyalty and respect.
Making time for each other was another key.
“We had dinner at 5 p.m., and (the kids) were to be there,” Ginny said. “When the younger children were babies, they would fuss at dinnertime, but it wasn’t that they wanted to eat. They wanted to be with us. They would hear the (older) kids talking, so I’d bring them and hold them on my lap while I ate. That way, we’d be together. ”
The Dunkers couldn’t have imagined how important that togetherness would play out two decades later.
By the mid-1980s, the Dunkers had moved from Ventura, Calif., to Bakersfield, where they got to know neighbors “Doc” Garner, wife Jean and their children, Tammy and John. Within a couple of years, Mark Dunker and Tammy Garner had married and had a daughter, Jenny.
The couple knew they didn’t want to raise their daughter in California. So when Doc, a podiatrist, proposed that his immediate family, son-in-law and granddaughter move to northwest Colorado to run the Massadona Tavern and Steakhouse along Highway 40, it didn’t take a lot of convincing.
Doc had already seen the old Wells Fargo stage stop-turned-watering hole. Except for a few pictures, Mark, Tammy and the others hadn’t.
“We had a couple of days of shock, not knowing whether we’d done the right thing,” Tammy Dunker said. “At that point, it was too late to worry about that.”
Reopening the Massadona restaurant, which had been closed for some time, wasn’t easy at first. After that first winter, Mark and Tammy weren’t sure they’d made the right decision.
But by 1999, when they decided to buy the establishment from longtime owner Joanne Newman, it was drawing enough business that its owners needed to hire help.
Moving to what many thought of as the middle of nowhere to help run a restaurant wasn’t what Ginny had in mind for her golden years.
“I’d told them before, ‘I was a pioneer once; I’m not going to be a pioneer again,’” she said. “When I finally agreed to come, I didn’t like it right away. But you can adapt to anything. You get used to the quiet. It wasn’t hard to adjust.”
Bob and Ginny arrived at Massadona in 1999, when they were just two of nine people sharing a double-wide trailer on the property. Within a few months, Bob had renovated a duplex used for storage into their home for the next decade.
Over time, the family members eased into their roles: Bob ran the bar and helped serve while Ginny and Jean cooked. Ginny became known for her famous potato salad and cream puffs. Parents and in-laws traded shifts with Tammy, Mark, Jenny and son Robert. And everyone pitched in when things got busy.
It was an arrangement that, however strange it may have seemed to outsiders, worked.
“It sounds like a soap opera, doesn’t it?” Ginny asked. “We always kidded when people would come in and say, ‘Oh, it’s family run.’ And Bob would say, ‘Yeah, it’s the in-laws and the outlaws.’ Which was which? We didn’t care.”
These days, life at Eagle Crest is slower and more leisurely. Bob and Ginny have grown to care about the staff members, who are happy to exchange the same teasing and banter the Dunkers were used to at Massadona.
Bob and Ginny have returned to the steakhouse with other Eagle Crest residents, but this time as customers.
The new life has taken some getting used to, but it’s becoming more comfortable all the time.
“We’ve gone back to Massadona a couple of times to eat, and it was nice,” Bob said. “It was nice coming back here, too.”