This article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 24, 2013.
Ralph and Mary Lou Watkins spent their first Valentine’s Day as a married couple in 1953 in San Francisco.
Sixty Valentine’s Days later, now in their 80s and living in San Jose, they renewed their wedding vows aboard the “Love Train,” a 92-year-old trolley that spends most of the year in the San Jose Historical Museum. It was the culmination of a love story that inspired their friends and family as well as the judges of a very romantic essay contest.
The Watkins had decided earlier this year to renew their wedding vows in celebration of their 60th wedding anniversary. At the same time, employees at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, or VTA, were looking for a way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of light rail in San Jose. Employees joked about dusting off the vintage trolley and hosting a Valentine’s Day wedding. Much to the employees’ surprise, VTA leaders liked the idea and suggested hosting an essay contest to choose a bride and groom to wed aboard the Love Train.
Mary Lou learned about the contest when a friend e-mailed her the notice less than a week before the deadline. She decided to give it a shot and wrote her story simply, in 100 words.
It began in the late 1940s when Ralph and Mary Lou were in high school. One of Mary Lou’s friends – one of Ralph’s ex-girlfriends – suggested Mary Lou go to an autumn dance with Ralph. Mary Lou clearly remembers her less-than-enthusiastic response. “You think I should go with him?”
Despite not thinking of Ralph as her type, she did mention her friend’s suggestion to Ralph, and his response was more optimistic. “That’s square,” Mary Lou remembers him saying.
At the dance, Ralph swept Mary Lou off her feet – something he would do hundreds of times in the next 60 years, as they would go on to join a traveling square dancing group. Eighteen days after that first dance, on Halloween, the pair agreed to go steady.
Ralph and Mary Lou continued dating until 1953, despite the objections of Mary Lou’s father. Like him, Ralph had chosen to work as a painter, and he knew that it would be hard for Ralph to provide for a family without steady work. He tried to distract his daughter by orchestrating dates with other young men.
Ralph remembers one, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, whom Mary Lou’s father set his sights on. Every time the sailor was in port in San Francisco, Ralph made sure to buy 49ers tickets.
“She loved the 49ers,” he said, “and I knew if I had tickets, Mary Lou would always go out with me instead of the sailor.”
Ralph asked Mary Lou to become Mrs. Watkins after he enlisted in the U.S. Army and received orders to serve in the Korean War. They had just six weeks to plan what Mary Lou recalls as “our glorious day.” Her father still didn’t approve of the union and refused to come to the wedding, so she had a friend give her away.
Ralph was sent overseas for the next 17 months. The couple wrote copious numbers of letters and Mary Lou baked cookies so her husband could have a taste of home. Ralph sent his Army salary to Mary Lou to help her pay the bills, and she squirreled some of it away for a surprise trip to a Hawaii upon Ralph’s return.
“We finally got a honeymoon,” he said.
Five years after their wedding, Mary Lou’s father admitted he had been wrong about Ralph, who, by then, had attained professional success and a growing family. The couple had a son and twin daughters in the late 1950s and took family vacations to water-ski at Lake Shasta, something Ralph and Mary Lou still do today.
In 1978, they faced tragedy when one of their twin daughters died in a car accident at age 19. “Those were dark times,” Ralph said. “But we’ve had a very happy life.”
Mary Lou wrote of this happy life in her contest essay and hand-delivered it to the VTA office the day before the Feb. 12 deadline. “I didn’t think we had a chance of winning,” she said. “But in the back of my mind, I thought maybe we did.”
On Feb. 13, the day before Valentine’s Day, Mary Lou’s phone rang. She has a hearing impairment, which sometimes makes it difficult for her to hear over the phone, but she definitely made out one word: VTA. “Then I knew,” she said.
The couple’s children couldn’t make their vow-renewal ceremony on such short notice, but their teenage grandson came from Livermore. The trolley accommodated 10 wedding guests, so Mary Lou and Ralph invited neighbors and friends from their RV traveling group and their square dancing group, some of whom they’d been dancing with for 35 years.
San Jose City Councilman Ash Kalra performed the ceremony on the trolley as it clanged through the city’s downtown streets. Rose petals lined the trolley’s red carpet, forming an aisle down the center, and flowers and tulle topped the windows. When the trolley pulled into the station, VTA staff greeted the re-newlyweds with sparkling cider and a wedding cake from the Fairmont San Jose, and guests tossed chocolate hearts from the trolley windows.
After the ceremony, the Watkins enjoyed more “wedding gifts” from VTA – a $150 gift certificate to Morton’s Steakhouse and a complimentary stay at the Sainte Claire Hotel.
As Ralph fed a bite of wedding cake to his bride of 60 years, one of the guests raised a glass of cider, offering the couple a simple toast. “To many more years of happiness for you.”