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VE Day dance leads to 60 years of marriage
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Ron and Ann Watkins mark their 60 years with a gift portrait of their wedding photo in 1949 and a congratulatory card from Queen Elizabeth II. - photo by GLENN KAHL/The Bulletin
Love was in the air in San Francisco at the Marines’ Memorial Club on Sutter Street – the love between a  husband and a wife and the many friends they had fostered during their years together.

It was a surprise anniversary celebration for Mantecans Ron and Ann Watkins who were wed March 19, 1949 in the historic Norman Saint Tybie Church in Carmarthenshire.

Ron and Ann entered the Crystal Room on the eleventh floor of the club – still looking like sweethearts arm in arm – where they were greeted by friends who had come from as far away as Canada and Wales.

Not only was it evident how much the couple continued to love each other, but the cheers from all their guests clustered at the far end of the lounge said it all.  After settling in from the surprise of old friends and relatives from across the Pacific, a bagpiper entered the room and played traditional marches.

Kevin Sweetman soon led them in “the call to dinner” down the main hall and into adjacent ballroom where they would have an unexpected repeat of their vows before the Reverend Dr. John Evans. The bagpiper, while only 17, has played the pipes since he was an 8-year-old and has reached the highest proficiency level.

When Rev. Evans asked if they did wish to renew their vows, Ann responded, “Only if I don’t have to say the word, obey to Ron,” she said. Of course that brought its share of laughter from the guests.

Love was at the very root of the party honoring the couple – it was two years in the planning by a dedicated and loving neighbor, young enough to be their daughter. Although she doesn’t freely admit her involvement, Diane Belmessierri carried it off without a hitch.

A lieutenant colonel with the Army National Guard, she is stationed in Washington, D.C., and did much of her planning from the East Coast. She has served much of her nearly 20-year-duty time as a pilot – a position that can be an exercise in character building for a dedicated woman. Her current mission has put her as chief of the Strategy Branch dealing with Strategy and Policy.

Diane has known the couple for over 20 years, and has continually kept in contact with them coming home to Manteca as often as possible. She has always been there for them as they have been for her over the years.

In fact she had to secretly acquire scrapbook and framed pictures from their home to put together a memory book – “A Book of Friends” – that was presented at the dinner. Others were asked to put together their memories of times past with the couple to be added as pages in the special compilation of good times together.

“Let’s Make a Deal" ends in cruise prize

Their first dance came before the dinner commenced,  and later to the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s music of midi accordionist Bob Monticelli and his drummer.

Diane used the “Let’s Make a Deal” format to present a cruise to the couple that they will use sometime later in the year. Guests were asked to come forward from their tables with items from a rubber band, a hair pin and finally a cough drop. They were awarded play money, and then given the opportunity to return the money for the prizes that were behind doors one, two and three.

Prizes to the first two winners were a brand new red sports car – a toy – and a box of popcorn.  Much less than they had expected. When asked for a cough drop, Ann Watkins responded that she had one in her purse.

She opted for what was behind door number three rather than the $100 she was given. A large cruise ship appeared on the screen and she looked totally skeptical thinking she was going to get a toy boat. “Is this for real?” she asked. It took some convincing to make her realize she and her husband really had a cruise in their future. 

The couple also received a congratulatory card from Queen Elizabeth II who had been advised of the anniversary party, and personally signed the greetings addressed to her subjects. They continue to have dual citizenship.  They were visibly excited at receiving the mail from Her Majesty.

Ron and Ann have known each other since they were 14 years old. They said they were just passing friends who kept up on information about each other. They had a lot of mutual friends and went out with each other for the first time in 1946 when Ann was 19: “He walked me home from a dance – a dance celebrating VE Day, Victory Day. It was a year after the end of the war ended, she said.

The day was celebrating the ending of both the war in Europe and in Japan.

They hadn’t seen each other for awhile – both having been away from home. He walked her home hand-in-hand – a vivid recollection in their memories.     

Ron walked her home the two miles – it was late, and the buses had stopped running. Then he had to walk two miles back to his home, she quipped.

Ann chuckled, saying, “Greater love hath no man than to walk a girl home after a dance.”

Ron served in Britain’s Merchant Navy, Ann was a student nurse

Ron served in Great Britain’s Merchant Navy and Ann was a probational student nurse in a children’s hospital in Middle Essex.  She said the hospital treated many refugee children, not having any of the injured from the bombing of London at her hospital.

Ann said they saw each other just on weekends – except when she “just happened” to ride her bike home from work, going by his house. They did a lot of bike riding together. It was a time when no one could afford a car – let alone a bicycle.

They both agreed there were no material goods available in the stores, since it was right after the war. Food was still rationed as were clothes. It was a safe time, though, when people could walk the roads, they said.

Ron said that “it was kind of a shock when the lights came back on” because England had been blacked out for a total of six years for fear of being bombed and strafed by enemy aircraft. The windows of their houses had black-out shades, as well, to keep the light from creating targets during the nighttime hours.

Ann remembers her childhood days playing with other children in an old castle, and on its grounds – all kids from her village,” she said.

They came to Manteca after they had been married for 10 years. Ron said they got “an itchy feeling” looking for a better place to go. He said he had been to the East Coast three or four times while serving in the Merchant Navy.

He and Ann first lived with an aunt in Carmel – for just a short while – after they had come to California. A job with Spreckels Sugar Co. in Woodland was his next step, and it was the beginning of a 33-year tenure with the company. He served the sugar company also in Salinas and finally in Manteca.

Worked 33 years for Spreckels Sugar

“It was a great company to work for, fantastic!” he said. “We came back to Manteca in 1983, and have been in the same house ever since,” he added.

Ann had worked as a medical secretary in Salinas. The daughters of her boss sat with Ron and Ann at the head table – demonstrating how close a relationship the couple had forged.

“I watched those girls grow up. I’m an adopted sister and aunt – I don’t know just what,” she said gleaming.

She talked of her nursing school days having to leave the nursing program because of illness. She felt that experience had opened the door for her in that doctor’s office in Salinas with Dr. Mathew P. McGuire and his family members.

“No experience wasted – that’s how I got a job in the doctor’s office,” she said.

While working as an electrical engineer at Spreckels in Manteca, Ron worked with managers Al Boyden, Jim Reese and Mike Gathercole. Stu Anderson headed up the Agriculture Department. And, of course, his wife Clarese was also a good friend.

Ron and Ann Watkins continue to enjoy each other’s friendship, loyalty and love. They have voiced their love for Manteca – and Manteca is a better place because of them – obviously a case of true love.