The unusual story behind how my parents met, became teachers, got married, and arrived at the Priory.
“Paul-have-some-more” meets “Sylvia-head-in-the-clouds”
(translated Cheyenne nicknames, in reference to his huge appetite, and her thoughtful nature respectively)
They first shook hands in the Los Angeles airport, before flying to Montana for a year of volunteer teaching. The recent Loyola Marymount graduate Paul Trudelle was tired, and in need of a change: He was tired of the competitive rat race of the premed track, tired of the crowded smog bubble of Los Angeles, and definitely tired of the dating game. He had set out his plan to spend a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and apply for medical school upon his return.
Sylvia Elek appeared tired too; she boarded the airplane only after facing significant resistance from other’s attempts to dissuade her from leaving. It made little practical sense in the eyes of peers, colleagues and family. Why would a well-educated woman with job opportunities in sunny, safe, Orange County voluntarily choose to live in a place with high crime rates, below zero winter temperatures, and a nonexistent paycheck? Nevertheless, she felt compelled to go and signed up for the trip anyway. Both Sylvia and Paul actually requested to volunteer in Alaska, and both of them (much to their original dismay) were stationed in Montana instead.
Friends for a Lifetime
At first, the polar opposite duo showed no signs of sparks. Sylvia acted reserved around new people, kept a diary, and possessed such an innocent nature it nearly classified as rebellious. For example, throughout high school, she played the famous card game “BS,” unknowingly, and with exuberance, in its long form. Whereas Paul, a textbook extrovert, and enthusiastic master of ceremony of the volunteer orientation, led Sylvia to question whether the town of Ashland ( population 300) could possibly meet this outgoing guy’s massive social needs.
Although as it turned out, even with the complete lack of nightlife and provided entertainment, meaningful social connections were not a problem. Bonding over teaching, cross country skiing, guitar songs, dart games, or small town basketball, the group of eight volunteers became fast friends. In a land wrought with much poverty and alcoholism they did not escape their dosage of trials and tragedies, yet through that, Paul and Sylvia found those years–filled with laughter, learning, and life–as some of the richest they have ever had.
Educators by Trade
Before they ever fell in love with each other, they fell in love with teaching. They shared the hallway across from their classrooms and collaborated on lesson plans, helped each other set up labs, and shared the inevitable disaster story. They cultivated an organic friendship rooted in the simple joys of quality time–and by November, Sylvia saw romantic potential. Unsure of what to do, she consulted Paul’s roommate Mike for advice. Using the analogy that boats are meant to sail the sea and not sit in a harbor– Mike challenged Sylvia to risk vulnerability, and tell Paul how she felt already.
Over the next few weeks, Sylvia worked up the courage to follow through with a unique strategy. Leveraging the close proximity of the airline seating arrangement, she confessed her feelings from 10,000 feet above the ground on their way home for the holidays. Paul thought she was sweet but didn’t trust his relationship track record, and quite frankly, at the time, Sylvia just wasn’t his type. “I like you as a friend,” he said, “but I’m considering the priesthood.” Sylvia had no comeback. Paul’s statement had been true at one point, but we still give him a hard time about this line to the day.
A Contract Renewed
They started the spring semester right where they left off–just as friends, but Sylvia’s feelings never quite died. As the school year came to a close, the volunteers faced the decision of signing a new contract as paid employees or heading back home. Sylvia stood at a crossroads. While she had grown immensely, and enjoyed the friendships, the only returning volunteer member, was Paul: a good friend, but also a painfully unrequited crush. Seeking wise counsel yet again, she consulted a mentor. “Oh, you gotta come back,” he said with great conviction. “Think of the students and the group of new volunteers. ” Thus after more time in thought and prayer, she signed the contract to return for another year, but let go of any expectation of joining Paul’s future.
From Friend to Fiance
One afternoon in July, things changed. Abruptly. Midway through a heartfelt spiritual and intellectual conversation, Sylvia shared a word of wisdom that resonated so deeply with Paul that it shook him awake. Suddenly, like Paul of Damascus, the scales fell from his eyes, and he knew he could never let Sylvia go. “It just hit me, like–here is this wonderful woman, she’s my best friend, knows me better than anyone else, and she has a rock solid faith in God. I would like her to be my wife.” And so, acting on what he describes as none other than the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, he proposed.
“Would you like to spend the rest of your life with me?” he asked. He had no ring in hand; they had never been on a real date, and yet she said yes. The previous hour, or even the previous minute, he had no plan of popping the question, yet he was full unparralelled peace. “If someone had asked me the following day ‘is there any doubt this woman will even stop loving you for the rest of your life?’ I would have confidently responsed ‘absolutely not.’ And I know that to be true, even more to this day.”
The following day when their friends heard the news, they claimed to have seen it coming all along. Paul and Sylvia’s parents, however, showed slightly more surprise with the unexpected phone call to announce both an engagement and a request for the blessing in hindsight.“Dad I’m engaged!” said Paul over the phone . “Congratulations son,” said Claude calmly, before silence fell the other end of the line. “Do you mind if I ask, to whom?”
The Sound of Wedding Bells
A year later they rang in their wedding weekend with a rehearsal dinner at a theatrical production of “The Sound of Music.” On July 26, 1980, they married in Corona Del Mar, California. To keep consistent with the beat of their musical theme, Sylvia walked down the isle to organs attuned to the Sound of Music wedding processional. It’s almost as though they sought to set the stage for a future where they would move to a land where the hills were alive, and have a bunch of kids that would fight for space on the bed to sing along with the film at least four times a year– but they denied it in all the interviews.
The Happiest Hotel on Earth
Two years later, with one-year-old Steve Trudelle in tow, they decided it was time to return to their native golden state of California. But not southern California. With pasty white skin, runners bodies, and an innate aversion to traffic, they craved a land with shady trails, starry skies, and wide freeways in golden hills. They prayed–asking God specifically for science/math jobs at a Christian school in northern California–and took action, making an appearance at a private school job conference at the Disneyland Hotel.
Despite Paul’s ability to befriend and conversate with just about any living being, the desirable job prospects looked bleak. One could argue that after hours of striking out, the natural reaction would be to slip out the back door in discouragement. But their bodies stood in Disneyland, the happiest place on earth where according to Walt Disney, “all of our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” And their spirits dwelt with Christ, as coheirs in heavenly realms. There’s nothing natural about that combination.
From a place none other than inside of the elevator, they bumped into Father Christopher Senk, from the Woodside Priory — a Benedictine, college prep school, founded by Hungarian monks in the hills of Portola Valley, CA. The chemistry was immediate. A week later Paul and Sylvia drove through a tunnel of trees along Alpine Road, growing more enchanted with each turn. Over the next few days, they dined with students, enjoyed the hospitality of the monks, and participated in a series, of what turned out to be, successful interviews. Shortly after, Paul and Sylvia accepted a shared teaching position, moved on campus, and never looked back.
Today–33 years, 6 kids, and 3 grandkids later–Paul continues to teach science at the Priory. Seventh graders and freshmen visit his classroom during recess to let the shocking power of electrically transform them into hair-raising trolls. They ask questions about the galaxy, and request in class commercials to gawk at the flaming brilliance of the exploding hydrogen balloon. It never gets old. In fact, Paul genuinely enjoys education to such a degree, that he recently admitted he hopes heaven is not just cheesecake and music, but also a place full of teaching and learning–two of life’s greatest joys.
And then everyone graduated from the Priory, and we all lived happily ever after.
Well, that sounds ideal, except I have to get back to the story .
Truthfully, we did enjoy many happy memories worth mentioning: finding satellites with green lasers on the trampoline, basketball championships, graduations , and road trips in the club wagon van. But we also lived as a colony with eight different personalities in a 1200 square foot space; conflict and chaos comes with the territory…The midnight evacuation as the El Nino flood waters surged through our hallways; the horror of watching flames engulf our first ever new van or plagues of strep throat: that’s only the beginning of the list. We also disagreed on occasion: about chores , R rated movies, church attendance, and curfews, to name a few. We learned a lot along the way, and to be honest, we are still learning. And… such is family life. Such is growing up. It appears a family balancing act of provision, protection and pulling back the slingshot to let the kids spread their wings and fly off into to their own unique futures.
The inspiration in the Example
My parents have shared many stories with us over the years, but to me, the story of their volunteer years is one I never tire of hearing. I suppose in part because the fact that less glamorous road that turned out to be unexpectedly romantic. But more so because I see a common thread of courage and faith. I saw it with my Mom forging forward to Montana on her own, and in her boldness to face rejection in the airplane. I saw it in my Dad’s proposal, and his choice to pursue his real passion of teaching.
And through it all, I’m inspired to watch and learn how God worked to open doors in their lives, with more blessings than they ever could have imagined.
Without further ado, I would like to raise an anniversary glass of bubbly water to my parents as they celebrate 36 years of marriage. Cheers to many more.
*Seven fun facts
- Sylvia took a break from classroom teaching to raise the six kids but she has since returned to the Priory as a math tutor.
- At some point in time, each Trudelle sibling (now ages 20-34) has harbored a secret hope that they too might be so fortunate as to skip the dating confusion by having a friend that becomes their fiance over the course of one conversation. It has yet to happen. But 50% are unmarried, so stay tuned!
- The family is now spread out in Seattle, Fremont, Santa Barbara, Sacramento, Portola Valley, and Indiana.
- Since the Bay Area has exploded in population, and Paul and Sylvia are still averse to traffic, they cope by spending as much time running or hiking Portola Valley trails as possible.
- Paul and Sylvia volunteer at church as marriage mentors and believe all couples should experience serving together for romantic bonding and character building. Oddly, they advise modern couples to actually go on dates before popping the question.
- To help them understand the middle/high school recess jargon to keep up with their students, my siblings and I make a point to educate them on the current hot new idioms and phrases. So, if anyone walks by the house and hears an interaction like this: “Hey BAE, how was your day?” “Not too sketch, the B period class discussion was lit!” –don’t worry, it’s just modern language practice.
- They still watch “The Sound of Music” every year.