After 65 years of marriage, most couples have many memorable stories to tell. But the tales of Ivan and Virginia Lathrop’s sound more the stuff of spy novels than typical family recollections.
As missionaries in the Middle East during the 1960s and early 1970s, they led a life of intrigue while raising four children. The couple moved back to Oak Harbor 16 years ago, returning to the town where Ivan first preached for the Nazarene Church in 1954.
But in between the bookend years of Oak Harbor, they traveled the globe, starting in 1964, with four children in tow between the ages 3 to 10.
Their memories are of another era in the Middle East. For instance, they describe Beirut as “a very beautiful city.” That was before the 1975 civil war that tore the city and country to shreds.
Ivan Lathrop recalls roaming Damascus “where you could buy anything from anywhere in the world.”
“It had nicest souk in the world — an open market — in all the Arabic world we have ever seen. But now,” his voice trails off as he contemplates the rubble and ruins that remain of Syria. “It’s sickening.”
Some scenes are seared in beauty, others marred by endless wars over religion and territory.
Son Marlin Lathrop best summarized the family’s travails during the 1960s as the Middle East ramped up for war:
• On a slow Liberty Ship crossing the Atlantic, they were rocked by a hurricane with waves bigger than houses;
• As they sailed past the Sinai, Saudi Forces shot at the ship;
• They fled to Lebanon from Jordan during the 6-day war of 1967 only to be evacuated days later from conflict in Lebanon.
Daily life in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria consisted of checking rooftops for snipers, feeling mortars shake houses and watching tracer bullets light up like fireworks.
“You didn’t go down a street if there’s no traffic on it,” remembered Virginia Lathrop, 86. “And you learned which are the safe parts of town are safe.”
But they also have many memories of calmer times, county side beauty, making new friends and learning the ways of different cultures and countries.
“They loved getting to know people over a plate of good food in the comfort of their home,” recalled daughter Marla Bailey. “We were also often invited out to others’ homes for long evenings of dining and making new friends.”
Her brother, Marlin Lathrop, recalled the time their father defied Syrian authorities.
“The craziest thing my dad did was go to Syria after being found guilty in abscentia of being a spy in that country,” he said. “After getting through the border, he went straight to the secret police headquarters to demand a hearing from the Syrian secret police.
“Amazingly they didn’t arrest him but he couldn’t clear his name either.”
Ivan and Virginia met rather sedately — at a Nazarene Church youth rally in Olympia. The first time, that is.
Ivan admits he was introduced to Virginia three times over two years by various friends before he took the hint.
The third time he’d been taking a nap in his room at Seattle Pacific University (now College) when his roommate shook him awake, saying “I want you to meet someone.”
“So I got up begrudgingly and went downstairs he introduced me to Virginia and we began to chat.”
Third time was the charm.
“So it seemed God had his plan and he had to wake me up,” laughed Ivan, 87.
They married in Bremerton August 30, 1952. Two years later, Ivan was assigned to be a pastor for Oak Harbor’s Nazarene Church. Back then it was a small congregation of 40 members; current membership is about six times that.
It turned out to be a shaky beginning.
“I didn’t do well. I was trying to be a new husband and new father and new pastor and all those things were troubling to me,” Ivan admitted. “I struggled and I felt bad.”
Ivan’s assignments also took the growing family to Idaho, and then Lynnwood. After six years, the call came that Virginia had dreamed of.
“We both had a call to missions early in our lives,” Ivan said. “Virginia believed she was called to Alaska.”
The young couple prayed about whether to accept an assignment in Ketchikan.
Even with four young children in tow, his wife was keen on the idea, Ivan recalled.
“Virginia’s prayers probably lasted all of 30 seconds,” he laughed.
“I said ‘Hooray,’ when we that that call to Alaska,” she recalled.
Having been born and raised in Washington state, Virginia said she’s always been intrigued with The Last Frontier. She found the colder weather also suppressed her asthma.
“It was wonderful, cold and rainy,” she recalled.
The couple had also applied to the World Mission for the Nazarene Church with an eye on living overseas.
That opportunity came in 1964. They’d been assigned to Jordan. In New York City they boarded an old WWII freighter with a Greek crew and “no creature comforts whatsoever.”
There were two restrooms on the whole ship, one upstairs and one downstairs.
“We’d been warned never to cross the Atlantic after September,” Ivan said.
Being the adventurous types, they set sail Nov. 1.
The five-day crossing ended up taking 30 days.
“We hit the tail end of a hurricane. That was the wildest trip you could imagine.”
Virginia remembers looking out a port hole at the roiling sea.
“There were huge valleys of water and I thought ‘How can we get through it?’
“We were the last missionaries ever to go by ship.”
Daughter Marla remembers when the family traveled through Europe.
“We always walked miles and miles when we were in foreign countries probably to save money and to see things up close,” she said. “This particular time, however, we boarded a bus and when we disembarked a few miles later, my little brother was not with us.
“We had left him on the bus.”
Luckily a taxi had pulled up right when the bus pulled away.” Not knowing the local language, they gestured to ‘follow that bus!’
They did find that little brother, Marlin, who now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. Their children, Mark, Maritha, Marla and Marlin, grandchildren and great grandchildren visited the Lathrops’ home throughout August in celebration of the couple’s 65 adventurous years together.
Their secret for a long-lasting marriage?
“Marry the right girl,” Ivan offered. “And say ‘you’re sorry.’”