A Love Story: Odetta and Bill NeSmith

Odetta and Bill NeSmith were destined to be married long before they ever met. Bill knew the moment he set eyes on her. But it took 10 years, both of them serving in the U.S. military with time on the U.S. Mainland, Puerto Rico and Europe, before Odetta knew it, too.

When she was growing up in Hilo and then Kaneohe, Oahu, the fourth of 11 children, Odetta was responsible for younger siblings and household chores. She learned early on what her life would be like if she didn’t formulate a plan.

“I have a photograph of me at about 11 or 12 years old, the ugliest, skinny kid, wearing shorts and a bandana, carrying my empty laundry basket, coming from the clothesline out back of our house after hanging up at least 10 feet long of cloth diapers,” she says. “Think I was anxious to go have babies? Of course not!”

So Odetta developed an independent streak, one that was just blooming when Billy’s family moved to Hawaii.

Meanwhile, Billy was a young boy growing up in Pasadena, California. He was drawn to the steel guitar, the quintessential Hawaiian instrument, studying how to play it before he ever knew his father’s employer would transfer the family to the Hawaiian islands.

Billy and Odetta became classmates in seventh grade in Kanoehe. The blond haired, blue-eyed young man was immediately fascinated with Hawaiian girl Odetta. He was also drawn to Odetta’s parents who were professional entertainers; her father played the steel guitar.

Independent-minded Odetta told Billy in no uncertain terms that she was not going to be his girlfriend, however, the two often spent time together along with a tight-knit group of friends. She found herself enjoying his company.

“There were a bunch of boys coming to visit me. One guy drove a Cadillac, another guy drove a convertible,” Odetta says. “I preferred to drive the Cadillac so that summer that boy let me drive his Cadillac – and I’d go pick up Billy!”

Odetta and Billy eventually dated a bit during high school but still usually did things together with their friends. Yet, “whenever Kaneohe thought of Billy, they’d think of Odetta or they’d think of Odetta and they’d think of Billy.”

Go get a job

In their senior year of high school, Billy attended school in California. One day that year, Odetta’s mother gave her the car keys and told her to “go get a job.”

Having the car in her control, “I thought I was somebody!” But as the day ended, no one had hired her. Heading home, her eye caught sight of the Army recruiting station.

“What urged me to go in is I knew they’ll give you clothing, housing, food, a paycheck, send you to school,” she says. “I wanted to be a physical education teacher and that couldn’t be a dream in my family because we had no money. We never knew about scholarships. That wasn’t even in our vocabulary. So I thought, ‘Wow that sounds good.’”

Billy returned home from California to find Odetta packed and ready to depart for Anniston, Alabama, where she was stationed.

“He said, ‘What did you do that for? We’re going to get married.’ I told him, ‘I’ve joined the Army to see the world. Getting married, that’s your dream, not mine.’

Undeterred, Billy joined the U.S. Air Force, requesting Alabama as his assignment. The Air Force did him one better, sending him to Mississippi, only 400 miles from where Odetta was stationed, and enrolling him in their new electronics technician program, providing him training for the career he was to hold after his military service when he returned home to Hawaii.

But after a year in Alabama, Odetta had gotten restless. “I joined the Army to see the world. I knew Alabama was not the world,” she says. “I asked for overseas duty.” She got assigned to Germany – exactly where she was hoping – for one year.

Billy was undaunted. While settling into visitors quarters at Odetta’s base in Alabama, where he stayed when he came to see her, he told Odetta, “You know, we ought to get married.”

“That’s a good idea,” she replied. “If you get to Germany, I’ll marry you.”

Odetta left for Germany and soon Bill was assigned to Puerto Rico. He eventually found his way to Germany, where they were married on Oct. 13, 1956, in Bad Cannstatt, just outside of Stuttgart.

Old-time Kauai people

After they both completed their military service, they returned to live on Oahu until Bill received a job offer on Kauai, where they planned to spend only three years.

Fifty years later, and after raising seven children in Kekaha on Kauai’s Westside, Odetta knows she is exactly where she belongs. Bill passed on in 1999 and Odetta still lives in the house they built together using both of their GI bills.

“Kauai has been wonderful. I’m so excited when I’m introduced as one of the NeSmiths, ‘old-time Kauai people,’” she says. “I love that!”

And her memories of Bill are as alive as ever.

“He was the loveliest person I ever met in my life. He was so modest, so kind,” she says. “We had so much fun together. We enjoyed each other’s company. He was just so wonderful.”

How long were they married? “We are married, forever.”

•••

Pamela Varma Brown is the publisher of “Kauai Stories,” and the forthcoming “Kauai Stories 2.”

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