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Wine Country couples share stories of their ‘forbidden love’

Alan and Courtney Conlon, who met duing their youth in San Francisco, have raised two daughters, Christina, 38, and Julianna, 36, and have four grandchildren. (Conlon family)

MEG MCCONAHEY,

When it comes to matters of the young heart, parents may be wise to not interfere. Star-crossed love a la Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story can be one of life’s great lingering tragedies, even if no one dies by the final curtain.

No one can know the heart of another, said Santa Rosa relationship expert Sharon Rivkin, even if it is your own child’s.

“When parents try to intervene in their child’s destiny, it really does not work because, in a way, it’s none of their business. Parents think they know the other person involved, but it is really overstepping their bounds because they don’t know. Parents need to step back and let their children’s relationships unfold.”

Of course, there are instances when a child is caught up with someone abusive, dangerous, engaged in criminal activities or truly toxic. But often, that guy with the tattoos and weird hair who doesn’t seem good enough for your little girl, may eventually mature into a nice young man. Or the girl from the wrong side of town will prove to be the one with a heart of gold who will stand by your son and help you in your old age.

“You’ve got to learn to step in only when you really need to,” said Rivkin, a marriage and family counselor and author of the book, “Breaking the Argument Cycle.”

When you interfere, you can pay a terrible price, leading to estrangement or family rifts as various members take sides. Rivkin said she has counseled with many people who carry huge regrets throughout life for heeding someone else’s advice about who they should love,

“They say, ‘I should have just stuck with how I felt.’ But when it’s your parents telling you they’re going to disown you,” Rivkin said, most people aren’t strong enough to stand up to that. It’s an unfair power advantage when a parent puts a child in that position.”

Some young loves give in, while others redouble their efforts to be together. Here are two stories of Forbidden Love where their heart’s destiny prevailed. In the case of one, Janice Rude and Prentiss Willson of Yountville, it would take 50 years.

Roadblocks to romance

She was a sophomore biology major, he was a lowly first-semester freshman who hadn’t even declared a major. But whenever he showed up in her cafeteria line at Occidental College, Janice Rude’s heart went aflutter.

She worked the cold station, the first stop in the line, serving up cottage cheese and cantaloupe. Her pixieish blonde hair was hidden under a hairnet. The lanky boy was always first in line at 6 a.m.

“Usually college students are lazy and have to be prodded. But this man,” she recalled, “was not like that. I think I was just impressed with how beautiful he was. His smile was so sincere and his eyes were kind. He was different.”

The girl didn’t even register on his radar.

“She was much too pretty,” the boy, Prentiss Willson, recalled. “I would never have asked her out. It was a boldness I never had.”

But the normally shy Rude became obsessed. In her mind he was dreamy and unattainable, like “a celebrity.”

“I was hot to get to work,” she said, “and then I dreamed about him at night.” As Thanksgiving break neared, and she dreaded not seeing him for days, she plotted a real meeting during the Thanksgiving dinner held in the cafeteria the night before vacation. She wore her best girl-dressed-to-kill outfit — a mocha-colored suit with fur collar and high heels. When she arrived she spotted his friends and asked where he was.

“He had dinner and left,” one buddy said.

“I have to find him,” she shot back. His friends rounded him up with word that a girl in the cafeteria was asking for him. Confused but intrigued, he said he “scurried my little butt back there” and the teenagers had their first conversation. A besotted Rude boldly fished for information about where he was going for break, not only the town, but the address.

It was a forward move for a 19-year-old girl in 1961.

“I was kind of shy, but I was driven by the fact that I don’t know this person,” she recalled. “But I thought I knew who he was.”

After her separate Thanksgiving obligations to her parents, who were divorced, she hopped into her sports car, her hair in curlers, and headed north to a town she had never heard of, Santa Maria, on the Central Coast. By the time she arrived, it was dark. As she primped her curls by the side of the road a cop swung by and gave her directions to Dr. Willson’s residence.

“I had to be stunned, happily stunned” Willson said of the moment the ‘hot chick’ showed up at the door just as the family was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner.

Prentiss’s mother, Louise, a warmly open woman, invited Rude to join them. She recalls being struck by the obvious love between the boy’s parents; her own father had been abusive to her mother.

“I did have the coolest parents of anybody I knew,” Prentiss Willson said of his iconoclastic parents who left a comfortable society life on the East Coast to move to California, taking a 90 percent pay cut to do it. “A date with me wouldn’t be nearly as a good as a date with me and my folks.”

The elder Prentiss Willson had been an esteemed OBGYN in Washington, D.C., who had delivered Richard Nixon’s daughter, Tricia.

Rude was invited to spend the night in a spare room. And the next day, after exploring the town hand-in-hand, the two kissed and became a couple. At “Oxy,” also Barack Obama’s alma mater, they were inseparable. Within a year, they were engaged, celebrating with Prentiss’s pleased parents taking them out for dinner and dancing.

Janice’s mother placed an engagement announcement in the Arcadia Tribune which said a wedding date had not yet been set.

But Janice’s father, Ray Rude, a self-taught engineer who made millions after inventing the Duraflex Diving Board used by Olympians, felt threatened by the Willsons and put his foot down.

“He felt upstaged because Prentiss’s parents were so knowledgeable and courteous, lovely and kind,” Janice Rude said.

Ray Rude put his foot down and threatened to cut off his daughter’s college fund and take away her car if she married Willson.

It was the 1960s and Janice was determined to have a career. Although she left the dorm and moved in with her mother, she couldn’t see her way to completion of her degree unless she acquiesced to her father. Heartsick, she broke it off with Prentiss Willson.

They grieved but they were young and ambitious and moved on. Their hearts did not.

Another boy pursued Rude and they married after she graduated in 1965 to help him avoid the draft. She became a medical biologist, had a child, taught high school and eventually joined her father’s business in her early forties. Willson married a woman they both knew at Occidental, graduated from Harvard Law School and after teaching at a black college in the south during the tumultuous Civil Rights era, moved in the 1970s to the Bay Area and settled in as a tax attorney with a growing firm.

Over the decades she married three times; he had four wives. But they never quite let one another go. There were brief encounters and assignations, even a window when they were both unmarried in the late 1990s and had some wonderful times together. But Willson ultimately decided it was too difficult, with Rude managing Duraflex in Reno and him living in the Bay Area. They again parted ways, although he said, “She was never out of my mind.”

When a planned meeting near Lake Tahoe fell through years later, he arranged a lunch date at The Cliff House to catch up. She went, wondering if this would be the last time she would ever see him.

“It took 30 or 40 minutes for the barriers to fall away and we had a sweet conversation,” he remembers. “We stood outside looking at the ocean. I held her hand...We walked on the beach and I asked her if I could kiss her and she said ‘Yes.’ At his car he confessed, “I never stopped loving you.”

They were both in their late sixties and, as he said, “We got quickly to the stage where we were too close to the finish line and decided this is what was supposed to happen.” Rude, the father who had protested previously, died in 2004.

The couple married in 2012 at Occidental College with friends and fellow alums standing up for them. They danced to The Eagles. Their announcement playfully included a clipping of their original wedding announcement from 1962 with an added insert: “The date is finally set.” Ironically, both Willson and Rude found that their mothers had each saved a copy of that clipping among their things.

So what kept drawing them back to each other? Willson believes Janice Rude left an indelible imprint on his tender young heart. She says there was no other man in her life for whom she had the same “unconditional love.”

He is 74 and she is 75 and they have been happily wed for five years, living in Yountville in a house overlooking a vineyard that the share with a black Portuguese Water Dog named Frankie.

They sometimes ponder the what ifs. Why didn’t they defy her father and meet secretly? Why didn’t they elope as Willson’s mother once suggested? He would eventually make enough money to support Rude through medical school if they had held out. Why did they let each other slip away once again, 20 years ago?

But then again, maybe other circumstances would have pulled them apart or poisoned their happiness. As it turned out their feelings remained freshly preserved as young love.

Said Willson, “It’s entirely possibly that there was no chance either of us was going to enjoy the happiness that we’re enjoying now, but for it working out the way it worked out.”

'Disowned' but not deterred

For Alan and Courtney Conlon, the spark was struck in biology class. She was a good girl from an upper class family in Presidio Heights. He was a bit of bad boy, two years older. They spoke only a few times that semester, his only words to her a breezy, “Hi Beautiful” that made her heart flutter.

Several months after he graduated in June she was walking with a girlfriend when she heard those words again. There he was, in an old pickup truck. “Can I give you a ride home?” She giddily nestled into the cab between Alan and his friend. Inside her four-story home Alan delivered his first kiss and confessed he had wanted to do that the first time he laid eyes on her in class.

“We went out on our first date, and from that first magical evening, we both knew and felt in our hearts that we would be together for the rest of our lives,” said Courtney Conlon, remembering it all as if it were yesterday.

But when she brought her new boyfriend home to meet her father — a medical doctor who strictly ruled the family like a general — their budding romance took a dark turn.

“You could see he was just everything my father didn’t like” Courtney said of her “bad boy stud muffin” with long hair and holey blue jeans. Her father did a background check and found he had been busted for two marijuana plants. Calling Alan a criminal, he told his daughter that she couldn’t see him again.

“It did push us closer together,” she said, “because we were forbidden. It became a scary game.” Her father hired a private detective to follow her. At one point her father, who would disappear every weekend, came home unexpectedly and smelled cigarette smoke. He grabbed a gun and hunted the house for the intruder, while Alan hid in the rafters.

“If he had found him,” Courtney said, “he would have shot him.”

Courtney’s father tried unsuccessfully to get Alan arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

“Knowing my father had a vindictive streak along with ample financial means, I stopped seeing Alan because I was so scared of my father’s wrath,” she said. “However, between numerous phone calls and several love letters that Alan sent to my girfriend’s house, our love for each other continued to flourish.”

Courtney’s father was so determined to keep them apart he sent her to a Catholic boarding school in Marin County for her senior year. That only enabled their assignations. Courtney learned that if she got straight A’s she could get off-campus privileges to go home for the weekend. To throw her father off the scent she would come home one weekend a month with a pedigreed classmate to impress her father and spent the other three with Alan, who lived with his grandmother. Her father, who disappeared most weekends himself, never caught on.

At college, the meet-ups continued. It all came to a head however, when Courtney’s brother ratted her out. Her father, in a rage, ordered her to leave the house for good. She and Alan got a place together and after several years tied the knot.

“From that unpleasant day on, my father vowed to never speak to me again. And for the next 30 years my father kept that vow, while spewing disdain and total disgust for me to anyone who would listen. And throughout those 30 years,” she said, “I lived only 25 minutes away from him.”

Courtney got her degree from San Francisco State and worked a variety of jobs, including a stint as CEO of the Pacifica Chamber of Commerce, where the couple lived for many years before moving to El Verano three years ago.

Alan Conlon, 65, is retired after a long career with PG&E. The couple raised two daughters, Christina, now 38, and Julianna, now 36 and have four grandchildren.

“I feel like our lives are just continuing to be blessed on so many levels,” said Courtney, 63.

She never regretted picking Alan over her father.

“When my father passed away in 2000, he died a very lonely and bitter man as he kept his stubborn pride intact. However, I did see him a few times near the end of his life while he was semi-comatose. I was able to tell him that I forgave him, and much to his dismay, I also told him that I thought he had missed out on so much of the joy he could have had as a father, grandfather and father-in-law, by being part of our lives.

Courtney believes that his resistance only pushed them together, and notes that while her father went through three wives, she is still hanging on to her honey of 47 years.

“He will give you the shirt off his back,” she said of Alan, a mensch who lends his handyman skills to several of their single friends and who, she said, never has to be told to do anything around the house.

“The enduring love that Alan and I have for one another has carried us through all those difficult, yet exhilarating early years and throughout the ups and downs of life,” she said. “It seems like we are living a long fairytale that fortunately turned out with a happy ending.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.