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Seven decades of bridge span Utah County women’s friendship

December 7, 2017 GMT

For a group of Utah women, bridge is much more than a card game. It has been an important part of their lives for more than half a century.

Janet Billings learned to play bridge from her mother when she was young and always wanted to find people to play with. As a student at Brigham Young University in the 1940s, she found a group of friends who all loved to get together to play the game. That same group is still playing together today.

The group of women, who all live in Utah County except one who lives in Salt Lake City, meet together every week to play the game they love. But more than the game that has kept them together for about 70 years. The women are friends who have helped and supported each other for decades.

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When the ladies met, there were about 2,000 students at BYU.

“All of the men that were at BYU were the 17-year-olds because it was during the war,” Billings said. Billings lived with Norma Ivins while they were students and they always had a bridge table set up in their place.

“We were in the same social unit at BYU,” said Ruth Ballif.

Ballif was a student at the university from 1945 to 1949. The friends soon started playing bridge together as students and found their love for the game.

“I’m not playing it for competitiveness. I prefer being with my friends,” Ballif said. “We enjoy playing and not getting too competitive.”

As the group of friends graduated, got married and started having children, some of them moved away from Utah, but all eventually came back and joined right back into their bridge-playing group.

“It’s progressed through boyfriends and marriage and children and death and grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Ivins said. “I hate to admit it, but we were even talking about funerals the other day.”

Three friends from the original group have passed away, but the rest continue to play together. “They were our good, good friends. It was hard to let them go,” Billings said.

While the women were raising their families, they played the game in their homes once each month. Then, they began playing every other week.

“Then we decided that we just couldn’t get along without seeing each other every week,” said LaRae Gourley.

Now, the women meet every Wednesday to spend about five hours together.

“We sit after playing and just talk, talk, talk and reminisce,” Billings said.

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The group credits the game to keeping the friendship together. As they have played the game, they have experienced good times and bad, raising kids and working and retirement.

“All of our husbands are gone now,” Billings said. “It’s been a nice help. It’s been a nice support to have. It’s nice to still have friends.”

As each of their husbands passed away, the others supported and comforted. “We thought it would be better to stay together and help each other,” Gourley said.

Now that most of the women are in their 90s, there are other benefits, in addition to entertainment and friendship.

“To get up and get ready and get dressed and have someplace to go,” Gourley said. “It keeps us sharp-minded and healthy.”

“Bridge develops your mind, your memory,” Billings said.

“It’s interesting. There are a lot of hearing aids, pacemakers and false knees and hips. We’ve outlived cancer,” said Clara Thomas, a newer member of the group, who is 70 years old.

Ivins hasn’t been able to see well enough to play the game for about a year, but she continues to meet with her friends every week.

“It’s really sad,” she said. But, meeting with her friends keeps her coming. “This has kept our friendship together. No matter what happens, we’re all together like sisters,” she said.

“This is a good thing to do, now that we’re alone. We’ll never quit. If one goes or two go, we’ll just keep going,” Billings said.

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