World War II wedding gown gets new life - again

Silken threads link three generations

The petite coed noticed him right away. He was Gene Voiland: tall, dark, handsome, and freshman class president.

“He was the handsomest fella I had ever seen,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

Cay, unashamedly, did everything she could to meet him.

“I found out what clubs he belonged to and I joined those clubs, like the hiking club,” said Cay Voiland. “I knew he played chess. I had never played chess in my life but I learned all about it.”

The vivacious college student even managed to get close to Voiland on an organized hike.

“We all piled into the back of a truck to go up to the mountain to hike,” said Kay. “I managed to sit right next to him. I remember it was cold and he offered me his jacket.”

The other women on the campus of Seattle University never had a chance.

Cay and Gene Voiland, residents at the Holmstad, a retirement community in Batavia, started life together like many did. They met in college and became inseparable. They planned to spend the rest of their lives together.

Then World War II changed everything. Like many young college men, Gene went into the service. He enlisted in the Army Air Force and became a bomber pilot with the 384th Bomb Group, flying 32 missions.

The couple became even closer through the many letters that traveled back and forth between Grafton Underwood, England where Gene was stationed and Seattle. One special letter included a marriage proposal. The two made plans to marry as soon as Gene arrived home from the war.

Gene made a few plans of his own.

“He arranged for his parents to invite my parents and me over for dinner,” said Cay. “After dinner, his brother, Joe, took out a small box that he had received from Gene. It was an engagement ring. He had saved all his money to buy me a ring! I couldn’t believe it.”

Cay started making plans for the upcoming nuptials. Before the war, wedding dresses were often made from silk, because of the smooth, luxurious feel of the fabric. But during the war, the familiar silk dresses and silk lingerie were nonexistent. Even silk stockings weren’t readily available. Young women resorted to simulating silk stockings by drawing the seams on the backs of their legs with eyebrow pencil.

Since silk had a strength five time greater than steel, all the silk in the country was used for the manufacture of parachutes and other war-related items.

“When the war was ending, I wrote to Gene and asked him if he could send me his parachute to use the silk for my wedding dress,” Cay said.

Gene Voiland and his co-pilot, Calvin “Pete” Peterson found a parachute that was in pretty good shape and split it. He sent the precious fabric home to Kay.

“I found a McCall’s pattern and took the silk and the pattern to a local dressmaker,” she said. “She did a beautiful job.”

When Gene arrived home, on Jan. 1, 1946, he had two immediate goals: marry Cay and finish college. He enrolled as a junior at Seattle U, and they set the wedding date for Feb. 19.

“That was a Tuesday,” said Gene. “We got married at the 8:15 a.m. Mass because we wanted Father (Gerald) Beezer to marry us. He also taught chemistry at the university. He was my favorite professor and because of his teaching schedule, that was the only time he had available.”

It didn’t matter what time of day they got married. It just mattered that they would be together.

When Cay walked down the aisle in the beautiful, one-of-a-kind wedding gown, Gene hardly noticed the dress at all.

“I was looking at the beautiful girl inside the dress,” he said, with a wink to his wife of 65 years.

Gene went on the become a nuclear chemist with General Electric nuclear facility at Hanford. The couple lived in Richland, Wash. where they raised their 12 children. When Gene was recruited by Argonne National Laboratories, the family moved to Naperville. Another job opportunity took the family to Morris, Ill., when Gene was rehired by General Electric to manage the nuclear storage facility there.

The dress was carefully packed away until Ann, one of the Voiland’s five daughters, asked to wear it.

“I was absolutely thrilled,” said Cay. “She looked beautiful in it.” Ann Riley now lives in Oregon.

The wedding dress came out of the box again recently when granddaughter Celeste Riley chose to wear it. She wed Greg Brennecka last October in Kansas City and now resides in Tempe, Ariz.

“She asked if she could take it in and I told her to make it her own,” added Cay.

It’s a simple handmade wedding dress, a dress that isn’t just a symbol of love but also a symbol of honor. It honors a mother and a father, who have love of family, love of country and love of God.

Three generations bound by love, a bond stronger than the silken threads that held the treasured wedding dress together for 66 years.

Gene Voiland walks his daughter Ann down the aisle in 1981. Ann wore her mother Cay’s dress. Courtesy of Voiland family
Cay and Gene Voiland with their granddaughter Celeste Riley and Celeste’s new husband, Greg Brennecka. Courtesy of Voiland family
Celeste (Riley) and Greg Brennecka married in October 2011. Celeste wore her grandmother Cay’s silk World War II era wedding dress, making it three generations to walk down the aisle in the same gown. Courtesy of Voiland family
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