When I tell Jan and Marshall Bronson that I consider them “citizens of the world” who somehow ended up running a bed-and-breakfast in Coupeville, they simply smile. But then all their stories pour forth to prove me correct.
While she was in high school and college, Jan spent time as a foreign exchange student in four different locations: Pakistan, Mexico, Scandinavia and Japan.
After he graduated college and joined the Navy, Marshall was sent to Japan for two years and while there he also spent time in Korea, Okinawa, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Then, after they married in 1964 following eight years of long-distance courtship, they lived in Indonesia for two years, Finland for three years and Uruguay for four years.
In between, they lived in San Diego (they’re both native Californians), Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland, and spent a few gorgeous months in Naples, Italy. And in 1968, Marshall spent a year in Vietnam during the war — with Jan moving to Hong Kong and creatively finding a way to visit him occasionally in Vietnam.
Then, in 1992, they landed on our Rock, moved into an 1890 Victorian house in pristine condition on South Main Street in Coupeville, dubbed it the Compass Rose Bed-and-Breakfast and began welcoming hundreds, maybe even thousands, of visitors to Central Whidbey over the next 30 years.
All this is enough to make your head spin faster than a world globe.
“The Navy sent me to intelligence school and I began working with and teaching Naval officers from allied countries all over,” Marshall said. “And Jan worked with me to offer social events and excursions that gave them a better understanding of the United States not found in military classes and textbooks.”
Jan adds, “I knew how important it was that foreigners see the ‘real’ America, not just our television and movies. For example, when we were stationed in San Diego we took a group of officers to Disneyland.” When they saw the famous animatronic version of Abraham Lincoln there, some thought he was real, she adds. Marshall remembers that visit for another reason. “I was walking with an officer from Thailand, and we were both in our uniforms. As we were walking, he held my hand — which is a normal custom in his country. It made me as an American feel conspicuous and uncomfortable, but it taught me a valuable lesson about other cultures.”
Working with foreign Naval officers and often their spouses, Marshall and Jan soon began inviting them to dinner at their home. That brought spirited conversations and interesting points of view — something that has continued as the Bronsons welcome visitors to their Compass Rose dining table for sumptuous breakfasts.
The Bronsons make an amazing team, gracious and friendly, each supporting the other in every way. Their daughter Wendy joined them in their “citizens-of-the-world” life. She was a toddler in Indonesia, for instance, and started high school in Finland. And, like her parents, she has now landed on our Rock, having recently bought a home with her husband in Coupeville.
So, just how did Marshall and Jan end up in Coupeville after their far-flung life’s work?
Marshall remembers that while in the Navy in the mid-1960s he was stationed on an ocean-going tug that towed things up and down the West Coast. “One early morning we were towing something down Admiralty Inlet and I enjoyed the great beauty. I was right beside Whidbey, where the Port Townsend Ferry crosses, and I thought to myself I want to be back here eventually.”
Jan, on the other hand, had never spent more than a day or two in the Pacific Northwest, often to visit her sister Nonia who still lives in Bellingham.
In 1991, Marshall’s 30-year Navy career was coming to an end. They were living in Montevideo, Uruguay, contemplating where they’d live and what they’d do on return to the United States. “We were thinking we’d do one of three things: run a B&B, operate a travel agency helping people get to South America, or own a hardware store, since Marshall is terribly handy,” Jan said. To which Marshall added with a chuckle: “Hardware would have been slow suicide. A travel agency would have been tough. And we had never owned a house.”
That summer of 1991, Jan’s parents came to visit her sister in Bellingham. They took a trip to Sequim for lunch, then caught the ferry back to Coupeville. Her sister spotted the Compass Rose. It already operated as a bed-and-breakfast, and it had a “for sale” sign out front. Her parents and sister immediately decided it would be perfect for Marshall and Jan.
After a protracted negotiation, the house and business were theirs. Daughter Wendy lived in it for a short while until Marshall and Jan arrived from Uruguay in early 1992.
At that time, tourism wasn’t nearly as big a business in Central Whidbey as it is today. “Coupeville was still pretty parochial, kind of a closed society of farmers and merchants,” Marshall said. “When we first got here, we were told we’d have a hard time. ‘You’re from California. You’ve been in the Navy all over the place. You will never quite belong here.’”
But not long after their arrival, tourism in Central Whidbey began to grow quickly. The population has also increased significantly, often with people from around the nation and even the word. “It’s given the place a bigger, broader definition and even a little feeling of internationality,” Marshall said.
And, given that growth, the Bronsons have applied all the lessons they learned about living in other cultures to make themselves part of the local scene in Coupeville. Both have been involved as volunteers in many local organizations. Marshall has served on the town council, the Trust Board of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, the historical museum board and the local historic preservation commission.
“Once you’re here, you discover how much there is,” he said. “That makes you get involved and do things for the best of the community.”
Over time, a number of their guests at the Compass Rose have bought homes in Central Whidbey, having fallen in love with it just as Marshall and Jan did. They like the outdoors, the hiking trails, the easy proximity to the Olympic Peninsula and the San Juans, and all the history on display.
The Bronsons proudly acknowledge that their B&B has made a profit only one time in the past 31 years. “We made a total of $18 dollars one year,” Jan said. But money isn’t the reason they do it. The Compass Rose likes to have an eye on the world, the way they’d like it to be.
Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and now lives on Central Whidbey.