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'The Christmas Twins'

by Nick Rotunno
| December 25, 2010 8:00 PM

Back in the 1950s and '60s, before Coeur d'Alene grew into the tourist magnet it is today, the Lake City was an idyllic slice of small-town America, a place of sand-covered beaches, giant ice cream cones and leafy, leave-your-front-door-unlocked neighborhoods.

For children coming of age in those halcyon years, it was a wonderful place to grow up.

"It was an innocent time," recalled Kay Van Cleave. "It really was, the '50s and '60s. It was different."

Kay was born on Dec. 25, 1950 - Christmas Day - at Lake City General Hospital, which once stood near Sherman Avenue in downtown Coeur d'Alene. She was then known as Katherine Cook. Eight minutes later, her twin sister, Kathleen, came into the world. She now goes by Kathy.

They were the 10th and 11th children of Ruth and John Cook, who had been building their family for the past 25 years.

"She was a month late," Kathy said of her mother. "So she was so big. We were huge for twins."

Ruth's water broke at home, but she couldn't be moved by car. Firefighters rushed into the house, moved aside the Christmas tree, hoisted Ruth onto a gurney and took off for the hospital, sirens wailing. By the time Kay and Kathy were delivered, just about everybody in town knew that Ruth Cook was going to have her babies.

"It was huge in Coeur d'Alene," Kathy said. "It really was a huge event. It was like having the first baby of the new year, because it was such a unique thing."

The Christmas Twins, they were called. For a while the Cooks were celebrity parents, their little girls the talk of the town. Kay and Kathy were big news. Christmas 1950 was a special day in Coeur d'Alene - the twins had finally arrived.

Eventually the excitement settled down. The sisters began their lives at 21st and Lakeside, where several Cook children still lived at home. Their father, John, who had once worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression years, was a general laborer. Ruth stayed home with the kids, taking special pride in her two newest youngsters, her Christmas kiddos.

Because of the age difference, some siblings were more like aunts and uncles, Kay and Kathy remembered. For instance, their oldest brother, Dale, went to college on the GI Bill after World War II. He had been wounded, they said, on a battle-scarred Pacific island called Iwo Jima.

The girls attended Harding Elementary in the late '50s, then moved on to Borah Elementary for the sixth grade. Those were fun days, Kay and Kathy recalled. They would hang out by the beach for hours while John played cards at the Eagles.

"We lived at the lake in the summer," Kay said. "We'd stay there from 11 to 4, and we'd walk up to the Eagles and get him and go home."

Then, as now, Lake Coeur d'Alene was the place to be. Swimming, sand castles, boat cruises on the water - the beach was paradise.

"Everything in the town pretty much centered around the lake," Kathy said.

Sometimes the hydroplanes would come to town, and everyone would head toward the waterfront to watch them race. It was quite the occasion, Kay and Kathy said, the lightning-fast hydros whipping across the waves, the crowd carousing, everyone having a great time. The boats raced near shore, and took pit stops right where The Coeur d'Alene Resort stands today.

In 1961, when the twins were in fourth grade, the Cooks' house burned down. The family took it in stride. They found another house, a building that was being moved to make room for a new grocery, and had it transported to their old property.

"That was a big deal back in those days, to watch them move houses," Kathy said.

About that time the twins discovered one of their great passions: softball. The local program was just getting started, and neighborhood kids gathered at McEuen Field - then called Mullan Park - to play ball. That was the summer of '61, Kathy said.

The girls were hooked.

"That's when it started," Kathy said of the youth leagues, "and it just mushroomed from there."

Summertime was a great time to be a kid. Hot days, warm nights, the best kind of weather for swimming and sports. There was Fourth of July, with all the fireworks, parades and barbecues. There was softball in the street, kick-the-can and hide-and-go-seek around the neighborhood.

And there was Playland Pier. If you were a kid growing up in Coeur d'Alene, you probably loved Playland Pier. It was a miniature Coney Island, with carnivals, food vendors, an arcade and a whimsical carousel.

"You could get a 25-cent ice cream cone that was (so) big," Kathy said. "It was a neat place to grow up. And you didn't really have to worry about anything."

Of course, by the early 1960s, America was a changing country. A new and restless era had dawned. Television had arrived, and with it the nightly newscast. The Cold War was frosty as ever. An exciting young president had taken office, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining steam, and a small flare-up in a faraway land was about to become the Vietnam War.

Issues were getting complicated, and soon the country would be divided like never before, roiling, unpredictable, often violent. There would be assassinations and protests and marches on Washington.

But to a pair of 10-year-olds in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, the world seemed pretty simple. It was still a time of innocence, as Kay put it. You splashed in the lake, grabbed a treat from the malt shop, played in the woods and fields near your home. Life was good.

And then, inevitably, the city itself began to change. Streets were paved, the population grew. More people discovered the Lake City, particularly transplanted Californians, and started moving to North Idaho. Construction workers cut a path for Interstate 90.

"I remember them building the freeway," Kay said. "They moved houses out to put that off-ramp in."

The girls grew up. Kay and Kathy attended Coeur d'Alene High School, graduating in 1969. Kay married a Navy man, and spent a year in Japan. The journey was eye-opening.

"I had never really been much of anywhere," she said. "And then to wake up and find myself on the way to Japan ..."

A highlight of the trip, Kay added, was attending the 1970 Exposition in Osaka.

For a number of years Kathy worked in construction, holding various positions with different companies. She attended Portland State in the late '80s, earned a master's degree in student services and moved back to the Inland Northwest, settling in Spokane. She now works at Eastern Washington University as an academic advisor.

Kathy has three children - Joel, Jeff and Jeremy - and four grandchildren.

Kay went to work at the Altek facility in Liberty Lake, where she specializes in printing. Twenty-three years ago she married George Van Cleave; the couple now boast 15 grandkids. She and Kathy took up bowling, knocking down pins together at Sunset Bowling Center.

In fact, Kay is a member of the Coeur d'Alene Bowling Hall of Fame.

Today, Kay and Kathy will turn 60. Like every year, their birthday will fall on Christmas.

When the twins were young, they didn't have birthday parties like the other children in their neighborhood. The holiday, with all its festive cheer and familial get-togethers, made additional celebration - and additional presents - unnecessary.

"We had our first birthday party when we were 10," Kathy said. "We just never had birthday parties, and we never had a cake."

Naturally, the twins weren't thrilled.

"As a young kid, it's hard to have a birthday on Christmas," Kay said. "Fruitcake was a birthday cake."

It's easier now, Kay and Kathy said. They'll celebrate a combination holiday, and they won't mind. Dec. 25 marks that special day 60 years ago, when fire sirens heralded the coming of Ruth Cook's Christmas Twins.

Ruth passed away in September 1973, 18 months after John died. She was proud of her twins all her life.

"The way she felt about having her twins on Christmas ... we were her pride and joy," Kathy said.

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