NORTH SALT LAKE—To sit with Barbara Dowdle and listen to her stories is to be transported through times and places, highs and lows of a rich and full life.
You hear about life in Tonga in the 1950s before there was electricity or phone service. You hear about driving thousands of miles through Idaho and Wyoming to make sure an injured daughter got the best possible care. You hear about finishing a degree 40 years later than once planned.
You hear about setting goals and working hard and never giving up.
No one could have imagined the experiences she would have and the roles she would fill in her 84-years-and counting, least of all Barbara Dowdle.
It was in 1951 that she married Jack Dowdle, her husband of 66 years who passed away in January of this year.
The two had met in Nampa, Idaho and were married in the Salt Lake Temple, then studied at BYU. Jack got his degree in 1954 and several years later, with a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old in tow, the little family traveled by boat to Tonga to serve a building mission for the LDS church.
It took three weeks to get there.
Traveling by sea was not always easy.
During one trek to New Zealand, “I thought I would die I was so seasick,” she recalled.
They served in Tonga for three years, during which time they added another daughter, Moana.
“People were horrified that we would name her Moana,” said Dowdle, laughing about the Disney movie with a heroine of the same name. “It means ‘deep blue of the ocean,’ and that’s what they would name their boats, not their children.”
Though she tried to get her children to wear little slippers in Tonga “because there were chickens running around and foot-long centipedes,” she eventually gave up.
“We had to forget everything we knew about life in America,” she said. “There were no toys for children, no shops to buy clothes. We had to learn to survive.”
She remembered meeting John Groberg, a missionary who shared his experiences in a book that later became a movie.
He had come to their island from serving on a more distant one and did not use a fork or spoon as he sat on the tapa cloth to eat Tongan-style.
“I looked at him and thought, ‘that’s what we’re going to be too,’” she said.
“You can’t understand a culture unless you’re there quite a while,” she said. “If we’d only been there a year, we’d never have understood.”
Much could be written of their adventures in Tonga – of the 20,000 pounds of cement sent due to a telegraph error (2,000 pounds had been ordered) that became 17 churches, of the visit to the island where the Bounty mutiny took place, of the temple dedication in New Zealand.
But more must be said about the years that followed.
Several years after their return from Tonga, they were called to help build the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu, Hawaii but three days before they were to leave, Barbara, her three children and her mother-in-law were in a car that was hit by a semi-truck trailer. She was pregnant with their fourth child and had two fractures on her pelvis and one on her hip bone.
Her mother-in-law was critically injured so Jack lived with her and Barbara lived with her parents as she relearned to walk. A healthy baby was born six-and-a-half months later.
In 1966, Jack was given an assignment to go to Vietnam and build airplane hangars. For three of the next four years, he would be in Vietnam and she would raise their children.
“I would gather the girls once a month and tell them not to get married right out of high school because colleges were available to girls now,” she said. “They needed to have some way to earn a living and education was important. I told them I was going to do the same thing. It was one of the goals I always had.”
Jack and Barbara had set goals after hearing a motivational speech at BYU.
The first had been to serve a mission, the second to live on a farm. And the third – one Jack held – was to circumnavigate the globe.
It was on his way to Vietnam that he was able to visit Hawaii and Hong Kong and Tokyo, and on his way back he requested returning via a westward route, and was able to visit Thailand, Pakistan, New Delhi, Israel (just days before the Six-day War), Greece, Switzerland and more.
“It was amazing that a few months before our 16th wedding anniversary, these three goals had been accomplished,” she said.
Barbara had a few other goals, but they took more time to accomplish.
In 1978, she and her husband went to Israel, something that was important to her. Another goal was to finish her degree and many years later, with the encouragement and support of her children, she completed her degree in 1994 – 40 years after Jack finished his.
“He said I was like Moses,” she said, “wandering in the wilderness.”
Her degree was a bachelor of fine arts and she is one of the founding members and current exhibitors at Lamplight Art Gallery.
It was another car accident that had made finishing that degree all the more of a challenge.
In 1973, her second daughter Karen, an 18-year-old in the folk dance program at BYU, was in an accident and injured in a way that required constant care for the rest of her life.
Barbara was expecting their seventh child and almost lost both Karen and the child due to the trauma.
Because she wanted only the best care for her daughter and knew it would come from being home, she kept Karen at home even though it was eight months before she started to come out of a coma.
Barbara later learned about a specialist – one of only two in the nation – who could help Karen regain some movement. Over a three and a half year period, she drove thousands of miles “to get her body put back together.”
For 38 years, Barbara and her family cared for Karen, who passed away in 2011.
Not long after, Barbara again found herself the caregiver, this time for Jack, who was having problems related to age. It was important to her to care for him at her home, despite numerous falls.
Through their experiences, Barbara said her children learned “to always be kind to each other.”
“Nobody gets mad or angry,” she said, “when you think of someone else all the time, you forget about yourself.”
So many of her stories include miracles: Jack had a dream when in Vietnam where he saw what his son would look like before the baby was born on the other side of the world. Blessings promised health and recovery even when it seemed impossible. A chance meeting with a Tongan family in Bountiful helped her reunite with a woman she had grown to love 50 years earlier in Tonga. The day she decided to visit BYU to learn about her application, she learned she had just been admitted, though it had been years since the process began.
Barbara, who has lived in North Salt Lake since 1981, said nothing in her life turned out how she expected it to.
“You just have to have faith,” she said. “And you have to work hard. If it’s not what you planned, you work around it.”
“And don’t give up,” she said.
Editor’s note: If you know someone with an interesting life story, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.