It was love at first sight for Billy and Vera
WHEN Billy Gill first spotted Vera Zubiak across a crowded bar in a Newcastle pub in 1967, the young Air Force mechanic thought she was "a good looking bird".
Later that evening he found the courage to ask her to watch a nearby fireworks display with him.
And, at the end of a night that would change both their lives, brash Billy asked the pretty young hospital employee to be his wife. She said yes.
A week later they were officially engaged and on January 27, 1968, in a Ukranian Catholic church in suburban Brisbane, they were married.
Billy and Vera celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on Saturday.
Billy Gill, known for years on the Sunshine Coast as "the sign man" - he owned and operated a successful signwriting business on the Coast for nearly 40 years - recalls that Vera was only 18 when they met and needed the permission of a parent to be allowed to marry so young.
"Vera's mum was Russian and her dad was Ukrainian," Billy says. "Her dad lived in Brisbane so I went there to meet him.
"We hit it off really well and he gave his blessing."
Billy, who grew up in Sydney, developed a fascination for signwriting when, as a 16-year-old, he worked as a shop assistant at the Franklins store in Gladesville.
"I watched them decorating the windows and writing signs and I thought 'I'd like to do that'," he says.
So he went to night school to learn his trade, successfully applied for a job as an apprentice at a Manly signwriting company and stayed there until, at the age of 19, he joined the Air Force and trained to become a mechanic.
After serving at Elizabeth and Wagga, Billy was sent to Williamtown, near Newcastle, where he would meet Vera, who was working in the dietary section of Newcastle Hospital.
After their marriage they returned to Williamtown where Billy had to live on the base, while Vera stayed in a boarding house 50km away.
That arrangement continued until the newly-weds found a flat in nearby Stockton.
In March 1968, Billy was medically discharged from the Air Force and soon found work in a Broadmeadow signwriting firm, but on apprentice's wages.
A year later, Billy and Vera's first son, Shayne, was born, followed a couple of years later by daughter Lee-Ann.
That was when they bought their first home - a small old house at Stockton, owned by his mate Stan Harris, where Billy practiced signwriting on the walls of the loungeroom. Billy and Vera say Stan was responsible for their start in life.
When Vera was pregnant with their third child Robert, the Gills made the move north and settled at Coolum.
They bought a takeaway food business at Point Arkwright but soon realised it would not generate enough income for the growing family. Billy took a casual job as a signwriter at a Maroochydore business to make ends meet.
They managed to sell the takeaway business and in 1976 Billy registered the name "Suncoast Signs", and set up his first signwriting workshop in Duporth Ave, Picnic Point.
Later he extended the business to include a building at the Bli Bli roundabout, with Vera manning that office. Business was brisk.
"People would come to me looking for a job, asking if I could use them. I said yes, and before I knew it I was employing two builders, two apprentices and five tradesmen, plus myself," Billy says.
Their signwriting company was a success, they'd moved into a lovely home in Tallowood Dr, Billy joined Horton Park Golf Club and became president of the Maroochydore Rotary Club.
Life was good for the Gills.
That all changed on May 21, 1996, when their eldest son Shayne, a police constable, was hit by a vehicle on the Bruce Hwy near the Glasshouse Mountains while conducting radar duty with the Sunshine Coast Traffic Branch.
He died immediately. Shayne was just 27.
The Gills were devastated. Even now - 21 years later - Billy says a day seldom goes by without Vera and him thinking of Shayne and what might have been.
More than 600 people, including Police Commissioner Jim O'Sullivan and Police Minister Russell Cooper, attended Shayne's funeral at Stella Maris Church.
A year later, a police catamaran, bearing the name S. W. Gill, in Shayne's honour, was commissioned, and in 2017, Constable Shayne Gill was honoured during medal presentations by Police Commissioner Ian Stewart.
Billy and Vera, who has had some health issues - a stroke, a battle with cervical cancer, a broken leg and, more recently, diabetes - are still just as much in love as they were when they met in that Newcastle bar more than a half-century ago.
Billy takes from his wallet a recent photograph of Vera, smiles and shows it to me.
"Isn't she beautiful?" he says. "How lucky am I."