Those beautiful blue eyes.
They caught the young soldier’s eyes as he stepped into the bowling alley near Fort Sam Houston in Texas.
The farthest thing from the 18-year-old’s mind that day was love, let alone marriage.
But he was instantly smitten.
It was something in those beautiful blue eyes.
“It was love at first sight,” John Coburn recalled of that moment when he and two Army buddies in 1961 came across three young WACs.
The young Specialist 4 in the Women’s Army Corp whose eyes were deep pools of blue felt the same way.
But she was focused on a career in the Army medical service and John was doing what 18-year-olds do of living in the moment — or at least both of them thought.
John didn’t know how deep he had fallen until Joan Penelope “Penny” Luey was transferred to Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
Penny’s innocence and intense love of life was what John saw in those blue eyes.
While John wrote letters, he was going crazy. He made trips to visit her. He couldn’t get Penny out of his mind. Eventually, Penny ended up in San Pedro staying with a sister while John was still serving. He arranged to make sure his itinerary during a 30-day leave brought him through San Pedro.
John looked into those beautiful blue eyes again and found himself asking Penny to marry him. To his surprise and utter delight she said “yes.”
John high-tailed it home to Escalon and spent the rest of his four weeks of leave working to earn extra money as he knew a soldier’s pay of $96 a month wasn’t enough to get married on.
John returned to his base by bus. Penny soon followed on a flight. They were married.
They spent the next 52 years in love. Oh, there were fights and arguments but at the end of the day all that ever mattered were each other.
• • •
Helping people was Penny’s purpose in life
Well not quite. There were five others that mattered — daughters Debbie, Susan and Shawn along with sons David and Daniel. Then there were the “other kids” and individuals. Plus there were all the causes that John actively backed in the greater Manteca community during his days in banking through Wells Fargo, Bank of Stockton, Oak Valley Community and MidCal National while Penny kept the home fires burning.
Those 40 years in banking that John dedicated to serving his time on various community boards was alright with Penny. You see, helping people was Penny’s purpose in life besides having a mischievous streak a mile wide.
She also was what made it possible for John to meet farmers that were banking clients at the crack of dawn and conduct true personal banking long before it became just an advertising gimmick for mega-corporations hiding behind ATMs.
“She made it all possible,” John said. “When we donated money to a cause it was possible because she was on board.”
While John was high profile in the good works in the community due to the support of Penny, she was right up there when it came to doing good.
The couple’s 10-acre ranch in Escalon was a haven for those needing help or simply friends. As their children noted, John would find someone in need and bring them home to dinner and Penny would feed them. Rarely did the family of seven just have seven at the dinner table.
It was also true of family vacations. Although John was a country boy and Penny a city girl from Massachusetts he never had the camping bug until Penny infected him with it.
Their trips to Big Sur, Yosemite, and elsewhere were extended family affairs.
• • •
Family headed to Yosemite with tub atop 1970 Ford wagon
Most were conducted over a 20-year period in a 1970 Ford Esquire wagon that had “wood” side panels they kept looking new with annual applications of shoe polish and two rear facing seats. Since the wagon was always filled with kids and their friends, John at first strapped a big wash tub on top to secure the luggage.
It was on those trips that Penny put her blue eyes to work pursuing one of her passions — photography.
“She was always bending down taking photos of bugs and flowers,” John said.
One time in Yosemite she kept pursuing a bear trying to get the perfect shot to the point John became alarmed for her safety.
But fear wasn’t a concern of Penny’s.
It explains why as she danced with turning 60 she went snorkeling in Hawaii and went parasailing then dismissed it as being too tame.
And even though a bad knee made many of her excursions an adventure in pain, it wouldn’t stop her. It was reflected in the time she had an opportunity to go kayaking in the Pacific Ocean so those blue eyes could see sea otters up close. Having never kayaked and knowing a practice round would put her in intense pain making it impossible to venture into the ocean, she went ahead
Her adventurous spirit as a grandmother upon seeing grand kids struggle with the techniques of body surfing at Morro Bay prompted her to plunged right in to show them how and get nearly swept away. No big deal. Living life means taking risks sometimes whether it is physical or with your heart.
• • •
‘Momma to so many’
It was putting her heart on the line that endured her as a “mamma to so many.”
Penny had no qualms with one of her sons showing up unannounced with 10 teammates from the Escalon Cougars football team and feeding them.
Penny along with John opened their home and hearts to extended stays for friends of their children who had nowhere else to turn with a few staying for several years with Penny taking them under her wing before helping them to fly on their own.
It was Penny who started an impromptu special ministry at Escalon’s Trinity Church where she brought special adults dealing with mental handicaps from group homes to worship. Her interest in them and all others was genuine.
“It is what she loved to do,” John said.
Penny was a woman for the ages.
She loved politics and could talk on for hours. She loved cooking. As a kid she whipped up green spaghetti with red sauce for St. Patrick’s Day. As an adult she’d serve one of her sons surprise dishes from barbecued pig’s eye and to raw squid.
And just like everything else, she had a mischievous side when it came to food.
She’d egg on her children to see how many Saltine crackers they could stack in their mouths while stretching their jaws wide open.
She had a creative side and could make dolls out of anything including nylons.
But it was her gentle, quiet spirit, and willingness to listen for hours on end and reminding those struggling that faith in God and as such faith in life will see them through — was the enduring quality that touched everyone who came within seeing distance of her blue eyes. Penny was a woman of few words but when she spoke they were always loving, powerful and compassionate.
And even when she didn’t speak, her children felt love and compassion from the same blue eyes that captivated John for a lifetime.
Penny was also more than just a match made in heaven for John. She was his best friend and trusted advisor.
“She was smart,” John said, “She’d question me about something I wanted to invest in or spend money on and give me advice but I often would go ahead and do it my way.”
John said more often than not she was right and he came around to taking her advice to heart.
As Penny lay dying Tuesday, talking was more than a struggle.
John bowed down near his beloved Penny’s head and whispered, “show me those pretty blue eyes.”
Penny, for a moment, opened those beautiful blue eyes and looked at her beloved John and smiled.
There’s no doubt in John’s heart that those blue eyes were indeed the window to a beautiful soul.
Yes, it was a love story. And perhaps the best thing is that we are blessed with a lot of “Johns” and “Pennys” among us.
There’s a lot of beauty behind eyes out there. Ask John. He knows.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.