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Epilogue | James and Bettie Wise

James and Bettie Wise were inseparable in life, and then in death

CLEARWATER — Jimmy Wise, a retired railroad engineer, was out of bed at the first suggestion of sunlight. He threw on an old pair of shorts and hit the beach right outside his condo.

Mr. Wise walked three or four miles beneath the seagulls and in a cool breeze, his metal detector sweeping over the sand. He saved the loose change for his grandson.

He set up several beach umbrellas for the gang of friends who would be there by 9. Then he walked back to the condo, woke up his wife, Bettie, and started breakfast.

He finished cooking and set the table. That was his role, getting everything ready for her.

• • •

They met in 1945, in Baltimore, where Mr. Wise was briefly stationed in the Navy. He and another sailor had just stepped inside a restaurant when they spotted a pair of young women.

His buddy liked the blonde.

"Good," Mr. Wise replied, "because I like the brunette."

• • •

They married in 1946 and lived in Savannah, Ga., where Mr. Wise drove locomotives for the Seaboard Coast Line railroad, including the Silver Meteor, which carried passengers from Florida to Maine. His father had done the same thing.

After a year they moved to Baltimore, not far from Mrs. Wise's hometown of Dundalk, Md. Mr. Wise drove a freight train on the Patapsco Back River line, which supplied Bethlehem Steel. His wife taught elementary school.

Jimmy and Bettie Wise were an attraction of opposites. He loved to banter and play practical jokes; she preferred to let others talk.

"He was the outgoing people person. She was quiet," said Sandra Brooks, their daughter. "He kind of did it all for her."

But they were inseparable. They did their grocery shopping together. They cooked together. They even did the dishes together. She washed, he dried.

After dinner, Mr. Wise retreated to the basement, where he added to a multilevel electric train set. Mrs. Wise stayed in the living room with a crossword puzzle or her latest novel from the library.

He taught her how to drive their first car, a Dodge with fins and push-button controls. On weekends, they grilled hot dogs in the back yard, jumped around on pogo sticks and made milk shakes and ice cream sundaes.

Sometimes they got in squirt gun fights, giggling and chasing each other around the house. She screamed when he dumped ice down her blouse. She ran down the hall while he shuffled after her, doing his 1950s impersonation of an escaped lunatic.

Every so often, the Wises shoved the living room furniture and carpet aside, and turned on the hi-fi. They danced the jitterbug, the Charleston, or just clung to each other and swayed to slow songs.

"I grew up hearing them say 'I love you' a lot," said Brooks, 60.

• • •

They moved to Clearwater 30 years ago and rented a condominium on the beach. They met other retirees, including a group they socialized with nearly every day. Up to half a dozen couples showed up each morning with bag lunches, which they ate under the umbrellas Mr. Wise had set up. They stayed until 4 p.m., swimming and turning brown under the hot sun.

"They were like wood," their daughter said. Twice a week, the group went out to dinner.

Every Christmas, Mr. Wise gave his grandson, Nicholas, a jar with all the money he found on the beach. One year he collected $150. He gave the boy his train set, too.

• • •

Health problems ended the couple's beach days when they were in their early 80s. Mr. Wise could hardly walk or take care of his wife, who had diabetes and heart trouble.

In 2009, Family members persuaded them to move to The Oaks of Clearwater, an assisted living facility.

"It was horrible," Brooks said. "We had to pressure them. With great sadness and reluctance, they left the beach."

Mr. Wise seemed like his old self for months, going for 10-mile jaunts on a motorized scooter. Not so Mrs. Wise, who was increasingly spending time on the nursing floor. He visited her there, ordering the foods she liked and getting her to eat them.

Staff worried how Mr. Wise would fare when his wife died.

Then in March, Mr. Wise's health began to slip, too.

"It was odd," said Joshua Choate, The Oaks' nursing home administrator. "A month ago they were both fine. Then once she got sick to where she couldn't get any better, he just immediately declined with her."

The last month, the Wises shared a room in the nursing area. They asked staff to turn the bed rails down and push the beds together. For three days, they held hands.

As his wife lay sleeping next to him, Mr. Wise told his daughter how grateful he was to have lived a full life free of tragedy, with a steady job in a good economy.

On April 4, Mr. Wise told his daughter he was ready to die.

"He said, 'I'm going to help Jesus welcome her in.'"

Mr. Wise died two days later, at 2 p.m. on April 6. He was 88.

"All the staff was crying," said Choate. "They were hit hard."

Though Mrs. Wise was unresponsive, her eyebrows and hands moved when the family told her of her husband's death.

"We know she understood," Brooks said.

Nursing staff placed a fresh flower on the empty bed beside her.

Mrs. Wise died at 7:40 a.m. April 10, four days after her husband. She was 85.

"Everyone said this is so in keeping with the way they lived," their daughter said. "He went first to get everything ready."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


James Hamilton Wise and Bettie Bahel Wise

Born: Dec. 27, 1921 (Mr. Wise) and Feb. 24, 1925 (Mrs. Wise)

Died: April 6, 2010 (Mr. Wise) and April 10, 2010 (Mrs. Wise)

Survivors: daughter Sandra Brooks and her husband, Timothy; Mrs. Wise's brother, Bob Bahel; one grandson; numerous

nieces and nephews.

Services: None.

James and Bettie Wise were inseparable in life, and then in death 04/16/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 15, 2015 1:08pm]
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