It was only because he had to clean out his garage that Dr. Elmar Sakala, a 1965 graduate of Walla Walla University (WWU), found the letters, forgotten in a dusty box, untouched for years. He and his wife, Darilee, a 1969 WWU graduate, were busy preparing to leave on a trip, yet the letters stopped him in his tracks. “Elmar would come to me and say, ‘You’ve got to listen to this letter! Listen to what you wrote!’” Darilee remembers. Over the next several days Elmar kept opening more and more of the letters and reading them to Darilee as they went about their daily work, the memories continuing to flood back from 50 years previous, when their lives lacked the stability they now enjoy in their Loma Linda, California, home. The story of their relationship was there in the sheets of paper where it had first been inked all those years ago.
Elmar and Darilee grew up in Canada, and although they met when they were younger, it wasn’t until college that their story together really began. In 1963 Elmar transferred to Walla Walla College for his junior year. Soon someone else also made the trek southward.
“When Darilee came in 1964, she came as a lowly—very lowly—freshman,” says Elmar.
“You don’t have to emphasize lowly!” Darilee says, laughing. “Yes, I was a freshman, scared to death. Elmar asked me out maybe in November, but I never heard from him again, so I just kept dating other people.”
“I can tell you, though, that I can remember the exact clothes she was wearing. I can see it in my mind’s eye,” Elmar says of their first date. It wasn’t until several months later when Elmar asked Darilee to the men’s club banquet that they began to date steadily. The remaining months of the school year ticked by as Elmar finished his business administration degree. After graduation he got a job in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the two continued to develop their relationship throughout that summer back in Canada. Then the realities of geography hit.
In the fall Darilee went back to Walla Walla to continue her studies. With his student visa now expired, Elmar couldn’t follow her; he was stuck in Vancouver. International phone calls were charged by the minute. All they could afford to do was write letters. So, letters they wrote, every second or third day.
“It was very tough, and I remember just coming back from work every day looking for her handwriting on a letter, and when I would see her handwriting my heart would pitter-patter a little faster.”
Darilee laughs. “When we pulled out these letters, I can’t even remember how I would have had the time to write all of them.” She worked multiple jobs and took a full load of classes. “So some of the letters that come out, I say, ‘I don’t remember writing that!’ ”
The year was especially hard on Elmar, away from the college community and the woman he was beginning to love. So every other weekend he would drive the 800-mile round trip across the border and down through Washington to spend a few hours with Darilee and then race back for work Monday morning.
“It was tough, let me tell you, but that year in Vancouver gave me a chance to really do a lot of thinking and sorting out what love is. I can tell you that Darilee taught me what unconditional love was, because I didn’t know it beforehand.”
Elmar often spent every other weekend alone in Vancouver, often going to the beach. “I can remember I wanted to get a picture of a beautiful sunset that I could send to Darilee. I was watching the sunset and thinking, I’ve got to wait, because I only have one picture left on this roll, and I want to get the best one. I waited and waited, and then I saw the sunset was fading and I missed it. I missed it. And then I realized that I have such a good woman in Darilee, I don’t want to be like that last picture of the sunset and miss it. I remember writing in the sand with a stick, ‘Darilee, I love you,’ and taking a photo of that, and I sent it to her.”
“Oh yes, it was huge letters on the beach in the sand,” Darilee remembers. “Really big and done so nicely. It was perfect.”
Arranged chronologically, the letters show their relationship maturing throughout that year apart, culminating with their engagement. The next year Elmar found a way to return to Walla Walla as a graduate student, and the two would never have to be apart again. The letters, no longer needed, were soon forgotten. Yet somehow they survived multiple moves and different houses until they came to rest in Loma Linda, where Elmar has taught in the School of Medicine for 38 years.
“It was breathtaking,” Elmar describes of reading the letters. “It was like we were back there again. It just brought back to my consciousness the significant role that Walla Walla had in our lives. Walla Walla provided the environment in which [our relationship] could happen. We are making a substantial contribution to Bowers Hall [home of the WWU School of Business], and to a great degree the motivation to do that arose because of the feeling these letters generated.”
Life today is far removed from the midsixties for the Sakalas. Now Elmar and Darilee text back and forth as often as they want throughout the day. But there is still something special in those letters, which will not be forgotten in a garage again any time soon.
This article originally appeared in the Walla Walla University magazine Westwind, (westwind.wallawalla.edu) and is reprinted with the permission of the university and the author.