By Claire Harlin
Joe and Ellen Shirley remember coming to Del Mar in 1941, when the area was a beehive of military activity. Tents and army buildings spread over what is now the Torrey Pines Golf Course, and the University of California, San Diego was once Camp Callan, where the Shirleys both worked as cooks in the 9th Infantry.
Their memories of Del Mar life in the 1940s have just as strongly sustained them through the years as their fruitful marriage, of which they celebrated 70 years this month.
“Love and understanding each other is the main thing that’s kept us going,” said Joe Shirley, 90. “Trust and determination. Everybody has ups and downs and we had ours, but we managed to work through them and we still love each other.”
The story of how the couple met is a funny one: Joe said he actually dated Ellen’s sister before he dated Ellen.
“But she found her another boyfriend and I found me another girlfriend,” he said, triggering a beaming smile from his 91-year-old wife. “I kept her and didn’t let her get away.”
The two got married in 1941 in their tiny hometown of Newland, N.C., which only had a population of 700 in 2000.
“We’re just some old hillbillies,” said Joe, who took a break from his card game with Ellen on Valentine’s Day to interview for this story. “We lived on top of a mountain, and there was snow on the ground and the preacher climbed that mountain and married us.”
Soon after the wedding, the couple came to Del Mar, where they worked 14- hour days as cooks at the Army hospital. They lived on what’s now Fourth Street, and they remember hauling water in a tank from their landlord’s home on Crest Road to their cistern, which they shared with their neighbors.
“Everything was military in Del Mar until 1945,” said Joe. “When we were here, from the top of the grade up Fourth Street there wasn’t anything if you look east except coyotes, rattlesnakes and jackrabbits.”
After World War II, Joe worked as a cook in the Del Mar Hotel, which is now L’Auberge.
“Del Mar was considered a resort town,” he said. “When the races started all the people from Hollywood came to Del Mar and stayed at the hotel.”
After working for the hotel about a year, the Shirleys moved back to North Carolina and then to Venice, Calif., where Joe worked for decades as a cook at several local coffee shops and diners. He said his specialty was breakfast.
“I cooked for 46 years and then decided I was through,” he said.
Upon Joe’s retirement in 1993, the couple moved back to Del Mar and bought the house they live in now. The two attend Grace Point Church, Joe is an avid bowler and Ellen loves quilting.
The two have five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, and Joe said “family is everything,” to them.
“I thank the Lord he’s let us live and be together as long as we have,” said Joe. “I give a lot of credit to him because he’s kept us both fairly healthy.”