AT HOME ON ROCK BOTTOM RANCH SUPER-SIZED FAMILY LIVES BIG
WITH LOVE TO SPARE
THIS IS A love story about a couple — and their
|On their ranch, Bruce and
Billie Palmer are happily surrounded — as usual — by kids.
During Homecoming Weekend in February, Bruce Palmer ’79 and Karen “Billie” Tadema
Palmer ’81 received Seattle Pacific University’s 2003 Medallion Award
as alumni of distinction. “Of distinction” may be something of an
under-statement, considering how the Palmers accepted God’s call
to super-size their family. “As Christians, we’re called to take
care of widows and orphans,” says Alumni Director Doug Taylor. “The
Palmers have done that in an amazing way.”
Yet they say their parental feat is nothing special. “This is not
rocket science,” says Billie. “It’s just one foot in front of the
other, one day at a time.”
Rocket scientists or not, the Palmers buck the U.S. family-size trend in a big way.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the average family size was 3.9, not a
rambunctious 25, including six children by birth and 17 via adoption.
Ironically, the Palmers met surrounded by children. Bruce, who worked
at the First Free Methodist Church day care center while an SPU student,
had brought a bevy of tots to play on campus. A freshman co-ed introduced
him to her friend, Billie. Billie was unimpressed, later telling
her friend that Bruce’s most prominent characteristic was his arrogance.
Her opinion later changed, and a romance blossomed.
Married in 1981, the Palmers debated their family size. Bruce wanted
five or six children; Billie — herself one of eight siblings
— wanted zero. “I knew I was built for more glorious things than
motherhood,” she says, laughing. “But
I fell madly in love with somebody, and he changed my life view.”
Seeing Bruce’s devotion to their first babies, she agreed their family should
grow. In the early ’90s, with four biological children and another on the way,
the Palmers adopted three siblings. “There wasn’t any adjustment,” says Billie
about the day the multi-racial trio joined the family. “It was like they were
Their family size now doubled, the Palmers went about their lives in Anchorage,
Alaska, where Bruce was a pharmaceutical representative. Then more adoption
opportunities appeared, also in multiracial hues such as Native-Alaskan, Latino
and African-American. “We weren’t looking, but we were open,” says Bruce.
As they answered “yes” to a rapidly growing family tree, the Palmers found that
living in Alaska prohibited travel to visit family in the lower 48 states. “These
kids needed to know who their extended family was,” says Bruce of their adopted
children, many of whom had lived chaotic lives before becoming Palmers. “They
needed that more than my biological kids.” When Bruce had the opportunity to
transfer to Washington state, he took it.
The family settled in Eastern Washington
on a 20-acre farm outside Spokane they dubbed the Rock Bottom Ranch. About its
name, Billie says, “The farm is built on Jesus Christ, the Rock.”
Once in Washington, the Palmer kids quickly grew closer to their extended family,
including grandparents Eva McCleerey Palmer ’56 and J. Denton Palmer ’55.
Now summers include groups of Palmers trekking with their grandparents to remote
Washington and British Columbia lakes for fishing and camping.
With 23 children
ages 22 to 7 (10 teens!), the Palmers work
hard to keep their industrial-sized life homey. “I didn’t want us
to be like an institution and less like a family,” says Bruce. “I
don’t know where the line is, but I don’t want to cross it.”
All but four kids live at home. One is married and expecting the Palmers’ first
grandchild; one is in the military reserves; and two are in college, including
Riley Palmer, the third Palmer generation to attend SPU. “I told God that
if he wanted me at SPU, which I suspected, then he would have to come up with
the money — and he did,” says the junior communication major.
Back home, the Palmer clan also includes four dogs — among them a Great
Dane and toy poodle. Son Cole raises pigs for 4-H, and the family plans to add
horses and chickens later this year.
Their house has eight bedrooms (“Bunk beds are a wonderful invention,” says
Bruce), four bathrooms (“We have a master bathroom, but it’s not
sacred,” he adds, laughing) and a “baking center.” An 84-gallon
hot-water tank feeds the bathrooms, kitchen and two washing machines. A 100-foot
clothesline stretches across the yard. The family shares one stereo and one television,
but TV is prohibited on weeknights.
The Palmers also have three freezers, a restaurant-sized refrigerator and a standard
residential refrigerator. Each year, the freezers are stocked with the meat of
two pigs, two cows and two lambs. Billie, trailed by a flock of children, shops
for groceries at Costco. Dinners are spent together around an enormous dinner
table, once three 24-foot conference tables.
The family car is a converted 28-seat van, which takes everyone to church and
the occasional after-church dinners at all-you-can-eat buffets. The seven teens
who drive (two more are in driver’s ed) use the “teen car,” a
1988 Nissan Sentra.
Each summer, to harness — and expend — the vast amounts of youthful
Palmer energy, Billie runs a “boot camp” with shaved heads for the
boys, special T-shirts for all and lots of exercise. With mom leading the pack,
Palmers aged 16 and under jog. Last summer, 18 children joined the daily maneuvers.
This summer, says Billie, she’s hiring a teacher for a seven-week summer
school for their first through eighth graders.
While some researchers argue that lots of children means less attention and fewer
resources for each, the Palmers again buck the system. “The exact opposite
is true of our family,” says Riley. “With God providing strength,
we have love to spare.” His mother agrees: “You can’t have
too much love.”
But what about their marriage and “couple time”? “You would
expect the mother of 23 — 10 teens and years of diapers — to be this
beat-up, tired-out, at-the-end-of-her-rope woman,” says Bruce. “The
truth is she gets younger and more beautiful each year.” Says Billie, laughing: “We
have our PHD. We’re poor, hungry and desperate for each other. I think
God knew in his infinite wisdom that we’d have to have that in order to
— BY HOPE MCPHERSON
— PHOTOS BY
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