CITRUS HEIGHTS, CALIF. -- The first hint Donna Ludwig had that she might become a rock 'n' roll legend came on a bright October day in 1958. She and six of her friends were cruising the main drag in downtown San Fernando, in the white convertible her daddy had bought her, top down, radio blaring. Suddenly a new song lilted over the airwaves and almost made her run off the road.

"I had a girl," Ritchie Valens crooned, "Donna was her name ..."

The excited screams of her friends drowned out the rest of the tune, but she had already recognized it. It was the same song Valens had sung to her over the telephone a year before, after they had decided to date other people. She had cried hearing it then, not because she suspected he would ever make her famous by recording it, but because she was 15 years old and to have a boy sing a song he'd written about her, even late at night when no one else could hear, seemed enough like a dream come true.

The world didn't learn that a real-life Donna had inspired the classic teen-age lament, which sold almost a million copies in the late '50s, until five months later when the 17-year-old Valens died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.

Donna remembers being summoned out of class to the principal's office at James Monroe High School, where the press snapped photographs of her. Pale and thin, she clutched a framed 8-by-10 picture of Valens hard against her chest.

She received more than 8,000 lettersafter a fan magazine printed her address. Deejays began playing a sappy spinoff song about her loss, "Letter to Donna" by a group called the Kittens. Elvis Presley, whom she had never met, had one of his bodyguards arrange a date with her so that he could ask her all about Valens.

Twenty-nine years later, Donna Ludwig is back in the spotlight. The release of "La Bamba," the summer movie celebrating Valens' short life, assures her a permanent footnote in the history of pop culture.

"I really can't believe this is happening again," the 45-year-old business executive says. "It's really too much. I feel kind of silly."

Her name is Donna Fox-Coots now, and she manages a Cal Fed Mortgage branch in this Sacramento suburb. Her employes never realized she was the Donna until she announced she was taking a day off to attend the movie's premiere. The men in her office describe her as just one of the boys, a down-to-earth career woman with a ready, throaty laugh. "If I'd known I was going to get all this attention," she cracks, "I would have lost 20 pounds."

In "La Bamba," actress Danielle Von Zerneck portrays Donna as a giggly, rather demure schoolgirl. In reality, Fox-Coots says, "I was something of a little rebel. I was not sweet and innocent, I was more of a hell-raiser. I ran with a pack of girls and I was their leader."

Her independent streak gave her the gumption to date Valens against the vehement opposition of her father. Valens, whose real name was Richard Valenzuela, was a Mexican American who lived in a shack on the wrong side of town. Fox-Coots, whose father managed a Packard automobile dealership in Beverly Hills, regularly sneaked out of her bedroom window to meet Valens at San Fernando hangouts like the Rainbow Roller Rink or Bob's Big Boy. She and Valens had met the summer before their sophomore year at a party for a car club called the Igniters. After her date passed out from drinking too much beer, Valens began singing "We Belong Together" directly to her. It became their song.

When Fox-Coots reminisces about Valens it can seem as if a teen-ager is talking through an adult body. Her memories are those of a 15-year-old. "Here's my scrapbook," she says, pulling out a thick brown album from behind her desk. She opens it to a glossy studio photograph of Valens. "See that curl in the middle of his forehead?" she says. "We used to argue about that. I didn't like it that way." She flips over a few pages to another photograph. "See his hair in this picture?" she says, totally absorbed. "I liked it better that way."

She and Valens liked to walk, arms linked, in the rain. They always met between classes in the hallways at school. "I was attracted to him because he was a nice man, er ..." She stops herself. "I mean, because he was a nice boy. He didn't swear. He didn't get drunk." And whenever she laid her head on his shoulder, he always smelled so clean, like soap and water.

He was also a very good kisser, but that, she swears, is as far as it went. "As far as I know, Ritchie died a virgin."

Fox-Coots cooperated with screen writer and director Luis Valdez in researching "La Bamba," but says she was "grossly offended" when she read the first draft of the screenplay. "The sex scenes between me and Ritchie were my big thing," she says. "The studio told me they'd take them out, and I said I need some kind of guarantee. This guy {from Columbia Pictures} says, 'Trust me.' Trust me! I hung up the phone and called my attorney."

She never had to file a lawsuit, and she is very happy with the way "La Bamba" turned out. Not only were the steamy encounters between her and Valens deleted, but he is portrayed by actor Lou Diamond Phillips as a sensitive, caring young man who is constantly teased by his older brother Bob about his sexual innocence. "It was a 360-degree shift from the first draft," she says. "Originally they had Ritchie as this Chicano toughie ... Ritchie wasn't like that at all."

In the wake of "La Bamba," some people have questioned just how big a role Fox-Coots really played in Valens' life. In the movie, Valens is obsessed with Donna and plans to marry her. Yet hardly anyone in the Valenzuela family had met her before he died, and one of Valens' former business associates recently stated that Fox-Coots was little more than a casual acquaintance of Valens. "I remember Ritchie saying he'd written this song for his girl, Donna," says Bob Keane, his former manager, "but I never heard anything else about her."

Rock historian Beverly Mandheim says there's no question Valens was involved with Fox-Coots, but that she wasn't his only infatuation. "I think you can safely say that Ritchie Valens did not die a virgin," says Mandheim, who spent 10 years researching his life for her book "Ritchie Valens: The First Latino Rocker," to be released this month by Bilingual Press at Arizona State University.

The teen-ager probably dated while on tour in Hawaii, and he was apparently involved with a mystery woman from New York at the time of his death. The woman, Diane Olson, showed up at Valens' funeral and told his family they'd been engaged. She moved in with his sister Connie, but disappeared two months later. "No one has seen her since but everyone is looking for her," Mandheim says. "She's certainly got a story to tell."

Fox-Coots remembers meeting Olson at the funeral. "I asked if she dated Ritchie and she said yes. I couldn't tell if she was a hanger-on or not, but if Ritchie had had a girlfriend I would have been the last person he would have told about it."

Fox-Coots says she and Valens had "an arrangement" after he dropped out of high school to record music and tour the country. They would date other people, but whenever he was in town they would be together. He called her regularly from the road, sometimes mentioning marriage, but she never really believed they would wed. "I thought he'd get really really famous and that would be that."

Instead of making her feel special, being the real Donna just as often embarrassed her. "Going back to school after he died was so hard. I was devastated. I cried all the time and everyone pointed their finger at me. I didn't want a big thing made about it. It was rough."

For almost 30 years now people have been asking her if Valens was the love of her life. "I was 15 years old, for heaven's sakes," she exclaims. "Who knows? I liked Ritchie a lot, I really cared, but I can't say I loved him. I was a kid. I loved my mother and sister and brother."

It's no accident that Fox-Coots doesn't list her father among her dear ones. She has never forgiven him for his "bigoted" rejection of Valens or for the recording deal he pressured her into after the singer's death. Hoping to capitalize on the brief romance, her father arranged for her to sing two songs, "Lost Without You" and "Now That You're Gone," on the Pop label.

Fox-Coots consented to sing the songs, she says, but only after a contract was drawn up ensuring that her share of the royalties would go to Valens' mother. The record, which never became popular, remains an acute embarrassment to Fox-Coots. "I don't want to talk about it," she says. "It was horrible. It just upsets me too much." She moved out of her father's house on her 18th birthday and never visited him again.

Her big date with Elvis Presley came a year after her high school graduation while she was working as a nightclub hostess in Los Angeles. Red West, a Presley bodyguard, had learned from one of Fox-Coots' girlfriends that she was the legendary Donna. He called out of the blue one evening and drawled, "Ya wanna go with Elvis tonight?"

"He wanted to know all about Ritchie," recalls Fox-Coots, who accompanied Presley to a penthouse party at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. "Could he read music? Did he write his own songs? You know, things like that. It was a nice, easy date."

A year later, at age 19, she married a musician who sang and played the guitar. Looking back, she suspects she was trying to replace Valens. "He looked like Ritchie," she says, "but he was not the same kind of person." The marriage only lasted a year.

Since then Fox-Coots has married twice more. She lives in Pollock Pines, a small community in the hills near Sacramento, with her third -- and she says last -- husband. She has two daughters who grew up bragging to their friends that their mother was the actual Donna. "Of course," she says, "no one believed them."

Sometimes even she has trouble believing it ever happened. "God, it was so long ago," she says. "For a long time when I was young, I used to have dreams about it. Once I dreamed Ritchie came and sat on the foot of my bed and said, 'Everything's okay.' I wouldn't even get on a plane until I was 27 years old."

The absurdity of Fox-Coots' situation doesn't escape her. Here she is, a middle-aged woman who worries about her double chin, talking to the media about this kid who will be forever 17. She's only consented to a few interviews, she says, and then only because she wanted to promote "La Bamba" for the Valenzuela family, which is receiving a percentage of the film's profits. She feels strongly that Valens' recording company took financial advantage of the family after his death.

She says she'd love to tell the world what it's like to be a living legend, but says she's never really felt like one. She doesn't believe she rates a place in pop history. "Ritchie deserves one. I don't. Our relationship was a very, very short part of his very short life. So he had a girlfriend. Big deal."

Nevertheless, both times she's seen "La Bamba," she's had to run out to the lobby to cry. Her tears seem as much for a time gone by as for a lost love. "I remember the scene where Ritchie and I go to a drive-in," she says wistfully. "They got the Coke glasses just right. I can remember them so clearly."

Watching bits of her youth flash onto the big screen has even brought back the old dreams. Only this time they're a little different.

"It's really funny, I'll dream about Ritchie now and instead of him I'll see Lou Diamond Phillips," she says. "I have to tell myself, 'No, Donna! It's Ritchie you knew, not Lou Diamond!' Now is that weird or what?"