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Family's tradition linked to WWII silk, bride's ingenuity

by: COURTESY OF LEAH NASH - Betty Beckwith (below) looks at a photo album with memories of her wedding with husband Frank (left) in 1945, and her daughter Debi's wedding in 1975. Her granddaughter, Melissa Baker (above), wore the same wedding dress as both brides to honor her elders.by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT -

It all started with Frank Beckwith, a U.S. Navy seaman standing on the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La in the South Pacific during World War II, seeing the beauty in some discarded item.

On Saturday, Sept. 8, there he was dancing in the arms of his beautiful granddaughter.

Time has not healed all wounds for Beckwith, whose emotions still bubble to the surface as he thinks of men lost in the great conflict some 70 years ago, including one of his close friends. But, the former longtime Portland bicycle shop owner beams with pride and sheds some joyous tears when he thinks about his family linked by something once headed for the garbage bin.

Smitten with the idea of marrying his sweetheart, Betty, Beckwith the seaman saw the potential in the old, used parachute left in a heap on the Shangri-La. He boxed it up and mailed it to Betty, with a note to his bride-to-be.

“I know you’re a great seamstress,” according to his letter, “and I know you’ll want to make your own wedding dress.”

Indeed, Betty also saw the potential and significance of yards and yards of white silk. On Nov. 1, 1945, in Brooks, she walked down the aisle for their nuptials wearing a wedding dress that became much more cherished than anything that old May department store had sold her and happily taken back.by: COURTESY OF JAY LAWRENCE - Bride Melissa Baker wore her family's multi-generational wedding dress and went tandem bike riding with husband Brandon Baker (above) after their nuptials Sept. 8 in Sandy.

She had made her own wedding dress, which pleasantly surprised the groom.

“I didn’t know she had made it,” Frank says.

Excited, he remembers thinking one thing: “Wow!”

Fast forward 30 years, and their daughter, Debi Peterson, wore the same wedding dress — and, as an ode to her mother and father, Debi and her husband rode on a tandem bicycle on their big day in Portland, albeit attired in other clothing as to not get beautiful silk stuck in bike chain.

Another 37 years later, Beckwith’s granddaughter, Melissa, married Brandon Baker at her parents’ residence in Sandy, the bride wearing an updated version of the dress, and the newlyweds later rode a tandem bicycle that had belonged to her grandparents — wearing Portland Timbers jerseys — from the reception at First Christian Church in Portland to their dinner and hotel for the night.

Indeed, the ties that bind are strong in the Beckwith/Peterson family. Melissa Baker could have chosen her own wedding dress, just as the Beckwith’s other two daughters had done, and taken a limousine.

But on her special day, Melissa wanted to do something special and honor the women in her family and the loving grandfather.

“Just the romance and the story, the element of family tradition,” Melissa says. “It became a centerpiece of the wedding planning. I had to wear it. There was no doubt I was going to wear it. The dress was beautiful.”

The wedding dress had come a long way since the silk had been used for a parachute. Original fringe remained, but Melissa had long sleeves removed and the high neck and back lowered and added pearl and lace trim.by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Melissa Peterson (center) talks with her grandfather Frank Beckwith about the wedding dress passed down two generations, made from a parachute he sent home during World War II to his wife-to-be, Betty Beckwith.

“I needed something to hold up the back,” Melissa says.

The Bakers wrote their vows, and parents and siblings shared personal blessings as they launched into their covenant of life together, Debi Peterson says.

“A spectacular day, indeed,” she says. “My parents were able to thoroughly enjoy all the festivities and were so very happy for Melissa and Brandon.” Melissa shared a dance with her grandfather.

“The two of them dancing together was really meaningful to me,” Debi adds, “because of the connection between them expressed through their eyes — far surpassing the dress connection.”

Frank Beckwith knows what the dress means to his family. He tears up — “I’m too emotional for this” — when trying to talk about the continuation of the love of family and tradition.

Says Debi: “It means the world to him. It honors his service and his family and 67 years of marriage.”

“It means everything to me,” Betty says. “A wedding is forever, always has been. The Lord was at our wedding, and I want to pass on what he has given us in 67 years of pure delight.”

From South Dakota, Frank and Betty were engaged when he went on furlough in 1944, a tough time because she had just lost a brother in the war and then her fiancé would be heading into the action. On another furlough, they tied the knot.

After running Beckwith Bicycles for years — the original being on Southeast Woodstock Boulevard — they sold and set about being world travelers to help with missionaries, visiting places such as Papua New Guinea, India, Brazil, Philippines, Australia and Bethlehem.

Debi and her husband, Timothy, lived and raised their children in Ohio and Philadelphia. They moved back in recent years to be around her parents.

Melissa and Brandon met in church, literally. Melissa, 33, had spent six months in Nicaragua, and she would send updates back to Reedwood Friends Church for its monthly newsletter. Brandon, a pastor of youth ministries, read the updates and, upon Melissa’s return, he approached her.

“Melissa Peterson, I know your face anywhere!” he said. Melissa was stunned. “He felt like he’d known me for six months.”

Now holy matrimony and a dress made of discarded silk joins the family. The years have become one moment for Frank Beckwith.

“She’s special. They all are,” Frank says. “That material is beautiful. I’m living it all over again.”

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