Willard and Martha Maki are on a rollWillard Maki is the king of the one-liners (or two- or three- or four-). “I’m always ready with a joke or two,” he admitted…. “When Martha and I got married, the pastor asked if it was a double ring ceremony, and I was ready to fly the coop because I thought he was going to put a ring in my nose!”
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Willard Maki is the king of the one-liners (or two- or three- or four-).
“I’m always ready with a joke or two,” he admitted….
“When Martha and I got married, the pastor asked if it was a double ring ceremony, and I was ready to fly the coop because I thought he was going to put a ring in my nose!”
“When our younger boy, Roger, was about 5 or 6 years old, he told Martha, ‘I think you got gypped – what happened to Dad’s hair?’”
“When we visited Finland, what I thought was really interesting was to hear a dog bark in Finnish....”
“When I was only about 25 years old, my barber told me, ‘Willard, you’re going to bald in a few years’ – I thought either he knew what he was talking about or I was going to start worrying about it so much, it would fall out anyway!”
“There’s only five days difference between a good barber and a bad one.”
The real joy of it is that his wife, Martha, is the perfect foil for Willard’s jokes, and it’s hard to tell if they’re real or simply made up until after he delivers his punch line. She’ll calmly give him a sideways glance and say, “Ah, come on now….”
Perhaps that’s why the two of them have had such a long and successful marriage.
Willard was raised on a dairy farm in Brevator Township, the only son in a family of three children. His father died when Willard was only 10 years old, making him the man of the family long before his time.
Life on the farm taught him the life skills he needed, however.
“I did a little of whatever needed to be done,” he said matter-of- factly. “Sometimes I’d tear down a chicken coop and make a sauna out of the material, and other times I’d maybe tear down a sauna and make a chicken coop!” he added with a chuckle.
Martha was born into a family of 10 in the store and post office built by her father just outside of Gowan, near Floodwood. She, like Willard, was of Finnish descent. Perhaps that was what drew him to her when he first saw her.
“I stopped at the store one day with my mother and stepfather,” recalled Willard, “and Martha was working behind the counter. I told my folks she was kind of a nice looking girl but it was too far for me to drive when I only got $2 a week spending money working on the farm – and we had an old car!”
Love prevailed, however, and Willard somehow came up with the means to court Martha.
“On Saturday nights we’d go out to a show at the theater in Floodwood,” said Willard. “It would cost 28 cents. We’d get out of the show around 9 p.m. and then go on to the dance. Sometimes she kept me up until after midnight!”
They met in the fall of 1940 and married the following June. Willard was just three months over 21 and Martha had just barely turned 20.
Willard decided it was time he got a job outside of the farm and he sent out some job applications. One Sunday night he got a call from the manager of Arrowhead Creamery in West Duluth asking him to report to work at 7 o’clock the next morning.
“It’s a good thing I’m still alive to tell about it, because as I was going down the steep hill into Duluth, I fell asleep,” related Willard. “It got to be kind of rough riding and I woke up – to find myself on the left shoulder of the road!”
He and Martha lived in Duluth for a while, until his brother-in-law told him about a job at Diamond Match in Cloquet, and Willard decided to give it a try.
“I worked 10- or 12-hour days for a month on a rush order,” he related, “and then I got laid off!”
Willard then got a job at the paper mill, where he worked in the beater room, but he didn’t like working there so he quit after only nine months.
On July 1, 1942, Willard bought the family farm from his mother and stepfather and he and Martha started farming there.
“We were milking 18 cows,” said Willard, “ – nine cows each, morning and night.”
When Martha was pregnant with Bruce, their first child, she could no longer go out in the barn and milk, so Willard was milking 18 cows by himself.
“I had a friend who had a milking machine and I contacted the man who sold it to him, who came over and installed one for me,” he said. “Out of the18 cows, they all adapted to that milker pretty well, but there was one who kicked like a son of a gun. I had a bent pipe in each stall between cows, and she pinned my head there with my ears against that doggone pipe so I ended up having to milk her by hand. That night I called a guy, loaded her up and got rid of her!”
They farmed there until 1948, when they bought 100 acres of land in Esko.
Willard joined the carpenter’s local in 1946, when he was 26 years old, and he built and sold 10 houses on the land he’d bought. He’d work for other contractors in the summertime and in the fall he’d put a basement in, work on building the house over the winter and have it ready for sale in the spring.
“He did that until his arms started bothering him and I told him to do something else,” said Martha. “That’s when he started selling real estate.”
It turned out that Willard started to get carpel tunnel syndrome from all the carpentry work he’d been doing, and when Martha saw an ad in the newspaper for a real estate course, she suggested Willard try it.
Willard, then 63, took the course, got his license and set up shop in their family home, with Martha serving as his receptionist and business associate for the next 16 years. Eventually, their son Roger joined them in the business as well.
When Willard finally decided to get out of the business, he picked up his tool belt once again and started helping “widow women and older couples on social security,” only charging $8 an hour.
At one point earlier on, Willard had done some carpentry work in the old bowling alley on Avenue C in Cloquet, near the Labor Temple. When the owner asked him if he bowled, Willard told him he’d gone to open bowling a few times but had never bowled on a league. He added, however, that he supposed he could start.
“That’s how I got started, when I was 45 years old,” said Willard. “I never knew at that time that I was going to get another 45 years of bowling in!”
Martha soon got involved in league bowling as well.
“I always liked sports,” she said. “I used to play softball and horseshoes when I was growing up, and I had six brothers that I used to compete with!”
In fact, one of the first times she and Willard went out on a date, he had asked her if she’d ever bowled and she said she’d like to give it a try.
“We were on a train to Hibbing and we tried it after we got there,” said Martha. “I had never bowled at the time, but I beat him!”
In 1977, the new Southgate Bowl was built in its current location on Doddridge Avenue and Willard was asked to organize a
senior league for bowlers age 55 and older.
“I started working on it in October of 1984, and by January we had 14 teams,” said Willard.
By the following year, the league had grown to 16 teams. Willard served as secretary-treasurer of the league for 21 years, and at one time, he also got involved in tournament bowling. He and Martha also started to go to national tournaments all over the country and had a lot of fun doing it.
“We used to do that for our winter trips – go wherever the national bowling events were,” said Martha. “They were always held in different parts of the country, and I’d bowl in some and he’d bowl in some. We got to travel a lot.”
“We’ve been in Texas and Florida and all over the place,” added Willard. “I’d always get nine other guys to make up two teams, and in those years we had to send the money a year in advance to get a spot in the national tournament. Some of them would say, ‘Who the heck knows – I might be dead by then!’ I told them, ‘Well, I’m not going to go either if I’m dead, but if I’m alive, I’m going!”
Willard was temporarily sidelined by quadruple heart bypass surgery in July 2006, but by September, he was back out on the lanes.
He and Martha, at the ages of 90 and 89, still bowl every Tuesday at Southgate Bowl. Over his bowling career, Willard’s highest score was a 270 or 280 and he said he used to roll 600 series and carry an average of 180. Martha once rolled a 247 and shot a 586 series, often averaging around 160. They’re still highly competitive today.
The Southgate Senior League starts play the first Tuesday after Labor Day and goes through mid-April, and the two are there pretty much every week.
“Neither one of us drinks or smokes, so we spend our money on bowling!” said Willard.
“We see a lot of people who we’d never see otherwise,” added Martha.
With their 70th anniversary coming up in June, the Makis are still going strong.
“We’re lucky we can get around as well as we do, and we pretty much like the same things,” said Martha.
“We had our 50th anniversary celebration at a restaurant in Moose Lake and we just had our immediate family there,” Willard related. “When we have our 75th, maybe we can reserve the Astrodome in Texas – so there’s room for everybody we want to come!”