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The Great Grandfather Clock in the Westin St. Francis' Lobby
 Plays Important Role in Romantic San Francisco Tales
By Bari Brenner, The Oakland Tribune, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Nov. 18, 2007 - AHHH, romance.

Ready to hear a romantic story or two? (Followed, of course by a romantic travel tip, as this is supposed to be a tip column.)

Get your hankies out. Or be prepared to stiffen that upper lip to prevent it from quivering. (All the better to say "awwww.")

The stories have to do with a hotel (as so many good stories do) and hotels usually involve travel -- although these two stories don't. No matter, they could have involved traveling and perhaps you have a similar one that did and would like to share it in a future column. The address to do so is below. Just keep in mind that some details needn't be included; I think you know what kind of things (wink) I mean. (Oh dear, there I go begging for column material, again.).

So here's romantic story No. 1:

Way back in 1965, Elaine and John Palmer -- he a student at Castro Valley High School at the time and she a student at Canyon High in the same community -- went to dinner at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco prior to attending John's senior ball.

(The dance itself was held at the school -- "in the gym, with all the crepe paper," Elaine recalls.)

They knew each other, both being part of several of the same social groups, but had not dated before.

During the evening, the couple shared a special kiss under the Great Magneta Grandfather Clock in the St. Francis' lobby, which this year is celebrating its centennial.

Built in 1856, the clock made an arduous steamer trip from Europe around Cape Horn in 1907, and was officially dedicated to The Westin St. Francis on Nov. 30, 1907. The Viennese timepiece was the first master clock introduced to the West, and was installed in its place of honor in the grand lobby after the hotel's recovery from The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

During the past century, the refrain "meet me under the clock" has become a cherished rallying cry for generations of hotel guests and San Franciscans, and the clock has served as the official gathering place for families, friends, lovers and international adventurers.

But back to John and Elaine: After a wonderfully romantic evening at the senior ball, John soon left for college at Utah State University and Elaine enrolled at Cal State, Hayward.

For 23 years, John and Elaine went their separate ways with no contact whatsover -- both married, had children and later divorced.

Then one day, more than two decades later, Elaine received a call out of the blue from John, who was now living several states away. Elaine learned that instead of going to college and on to medical school as John had planned, he had been drafted into the Army to serve in the Vietnam War.

A helicopter pilot during the war, John was shot down twice and earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Purple Hearts.

John had sent Elaine a letter from Vietnam, which she never received. "I always thought of Elaine as the girl I left behind," said John.

When he made that phone call 23 years later, John was a Delta Airlines pilot who flew into San Francisco often. Elaine was a hospital administrator in the East Bay (as she still is). After several conversations, they agreed to meet where their love ignited the first time -- under the clock at The Westin St. Francis.

After reuniting under the clock, John and Elaine became inseparable and subsequently married in 1991 (No, alas, not at the hotel).

"When we reunited that evening we were both struck, and still remain so," says Elaine. "Time really did stand still for us -- the years disappeared and we discovered it may never be too late for true love to be rekindled."

Recently, in celebration of the clock's 100th birthday, the St. Francis launched a nationwide search for couples who met "under the clock." Couples related their experiences on the theme, "Did Time Stand Still When You Met Under The Clock?"

John and Elaine, who live in the Lamorinda area of Contra Costa County, shared their story -- and were selected to be awarded the grand prize for having the most romantic meeting at the clock.

That prize was a public vow renewal ceremony under the clock last Thursday, followed by a lavish reception complete with champagne, gourmet hors d'oeuvres, "clocktails" (the hotel's term) and a wedding cake created by executive pastry chef Jean-Franois Houdre.

They also received a complimentary two-night stay in a honeymoon suite at the hotel, spa treatments for two, and breakfast and dinner for two in the historic Oak Room.

Next, there's romantic story No. 2. It is about the second-place winners, Oakland residents Mike and Cecilia Tonsing. Their story was related to the contest judges by their daughter, Cathy O'Sullivan of Walnut Creek.

"Cecilia Degnan met her blind date, Mike Tonsing, 'under the clock' on May 10, 1964," O'Sullivan wrote. "A student at Holy Names College, she had doubts about attending a formal (and, therefore, long) dance with a stranger from Saint Mary's College in Moraga. Mike, on the other hand, entered the night with a spark of nerves and confidence this was his 21st birthday, and he looked forward to impressing his date with a sophisticated and quite legal drink order. These paths crossed for the first time under the clock.

"In addition to being a landmark, the clock played a critical role that night as a timepiece. Every 15 minutes, Cecilia's girlfriends interrupted the couple to "spare" her from her blind date as part of an orchestrated 'dud date' contingency plan.

"These visits were not a good sign for Mike, already crestfallen that the bartender had never asked for his ID on his 21st birthday. Only later did he realize that, ever the pragmatist, she had made no plan for waving off the 'help' if she was enjoying the evening!

"A romantic at heart, Mike chose to return to the St. Francis restaurant to propose marriage to Cecilia (about a year later). Even the clock must have blushed when he started the proposal with, 'I want you to be the mother of my children,' a shocking preamble to Cecilia who didn't know what to make of it until she heard the words 'and my wife.'"

Cecilia, an Oakland native who is a health care administrator, and Mike, an attorney who grew up in Burbank, will celebrate their 42nd wedding anniversary on Jan. 29. In addition to daughter Cathy, they are the parents of Mike Tonsing Jr., who lives in Manhattan Beach. They have one grandchild, Ellie O'Sullivan, 3.

As second-place winners in the contest, the couple was also awarded dinner and a stay at the hotel.

The hotel has been a regular part of their married life. Notes their daughter, "Nearly every holiday season growing up, we would go as a family to Union Square and the beautiful lobby where the St. Francis clock sees new paths cross every day."

So how about it, readers? Any good stories about unforgettable experiences in hotels you've stayed in anywhere? Share!

E-mail your travel tips to You may also write to Bari Brenner at 4770 Willow Road, Pleasanton, CA 94588. Please include your name, city of residence and telephone number.


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Copyright (c) 2007, The Oakland Tribune, Calif.

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