Ron Wallen met Tom Carrollo through a mutual acquaintance in 1953, when Ron was just 19 and Tom was 23.
It was not love at first sight.
“This guy’s a slouch, I don’t know about him,” Wallen remembers thinking. “And he thought I was awfully young and didn’t know anything.” The two were different in another respect: Carrollo was a Navy man and Wallen had served in the Army.
Ultimately, however, the ice melted and sparks flew.
“We courted for a whole three weeks and finally it hit us,” Wallen said. “ ‘This is it.’ The rest is history.”
Despite the hostile attitude that prevailed toward gay couples in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, Wallen, an accountant, and Carrollo, who was in the printing business, moved to California, ran a business, and put together a life, piece by piece, over the next five decades.
After Carrollo suffered a massive heart attack in 1978, both men decided to take an early retirement for the sake of Tom’s health and lived a quiet, comfortable life off of their investments.
Wallen can only recall one big blowout fight during their nearly six decades together—although neither could even remember what it was about.
“We didn’t know what we would do without one another,” Wallen said. “We were joined at the hip and after we retired—that should have been the time when we got on each other’s nerves—but we didn’t.”
On June 24, 2008, soon after California legalized same-sex marriage, Carrollo and Wallen were finally able to make their devotion to one another official. They were married in a small, emotional ceremony at Riverside County Courthouse in Indio, Calif.
After a 55-year engagement, Wallen could finally tell family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, even strangers, that Carrollo was his husband. Saying the word took some getting used to, but it was a fact that brought the two men unspeakable joy in their twilight years and had them both in tears on their wedding day.
But their happiness was subdued too. Carrollo had been diagnosed with leukemia, an illness that Wallen described as “four years of pure hell,” involving an endless line of hospitalizations made easier only by the fact that Carrollo and Wallen weathered it together, side-by-side.
“Tom didn’t have leukemia,” Wallen said. “We had leukemia.”
Carrollo passed away in March of 2011. If the loss of his soul mate and partner of 58 years wasn’t enough, Wallen now finds himself in financial turmoil.
While Social Security survivor’s benefits generally ease the transition for recent widows and widowers by extending the higher wage-earner’s benefits to the surviving spouse, those rules don’t apply to Wallen or other same-sex couples. Under the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government is forbidden from recognizing Wallen and Carrollo’s marriage.
Wallen is surviving on $900 a month, on his own benefits, rather than the $2,000 a month he would have been paid if he and Carrollo’s marriage had been recognized. He is making arrangements to sell their house in Indio while also grieving the loss of his best friend.
But Wallen isn’t letting it go without a fight. His story is being chronicled by Freedom to Marry, the national campaign lobbying same-sex couples’ rights. And on Wednesday morning, the 77-year-old Wallen will testify at the first hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the repeal of DOMA, with a simple message for members of Congress.
“Tom and I played by the rules. We served our country. We paid our taxes. We volunteered. We moved toward our version of the American Dream,” Wallen will tell the committee, according to his prepared testimony. “All we ask is to be treated fairly. I beg you to repeal this law.”
Wallen is not expecting his financial ills to be cured anytime in the near future, or even to be able to keep his home. Although President Obama publicly threw his weight behind the repeal of DOMA on Tuesday, Wallen seems resigned to his fate. But he does hope that things can be better for other couples put in the same predicament in years to come.
“With the need for 60 votes to change the toilet paper in the bathroom.… I’m not sure that I’ll be around to see it,” he said. “To whatever extent my story helps, I’m delighted to do whatever I can. And if it leaves a better world after I’m gone, that’s good too.”
This article appears in the July 20, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.