In the summer of 1992, my red 1988 Toyota Tercel started costing hundreds of dollars a month to maintain. Fortunately, I could walk or ride my bike 1.5 miles each way from Oak Ramble Village, my apartment complex, to my job as a Human Resources Coordinator at the University of South Florida (USF). I also was a new part-time graduate student in Counselor Education at USF and could walk to those evening classes.
However, my continued membership and choir participation at St. Mark United Church UCC in Valrico was in question. St. Mark was over 20 miles away from Oak Ramble Village, so it was a 40-mile roundtrip drive. I had two options: 1) leave St. Mark and attend another church or 2) buy a new car and continue worshipping at St. Mark.
I had been a member of St. Mark for five years and was good friends with Rev. Garry and Carolyn Scheuer, the minister and his wife, who also served my hometown church, the First Congregational Church of Des Plaines, Illinois. I had made some friends in the choir and felt comfortable. It would be a tough decision to make.
I had attended special worship services at the Temple Terrace United Methodist Church with my best friend, Norene. This church was an easy 15-minute drive from my home. Norene recommended that I try out the choir. In addition, she identified a nice-looking bachelor who she thought might be
“my type.” I went to a worship service with her in mid-August to observe him in the choir.
I would make my decision about buying a new car after my drive to St. Mark’s first choir rehearsal of the new school year. My drive was slow due to heavy traffic between Tampa and Valrico, so I walked into the choir room a few minutes after the rehearsal began. I was astonished and touched when the entire choir stood up and gave me a standing ovation!
Instantly, I knew that I could not leave this church and my choir family. My decision was made: I quickly applied for a car loan at the USF Credit Union and bought a new green 1992 Toyota Corolla on August 29, 1992.
The following week, there was an added bonus to staying at St. Mark. I noticed a new tenor in the choir: Tom Russell was a Beatles karaoke buddy of Judy, a soprano. Tom and Judy both taught at Brandon High School.
During a mid-rehearsal break, I noticed that Tom wore a t-shirt with the words, “I turned 40 and all I got was this t-shirt,” printed on the front. I just had turned 40 in July, so I was amazed that Tom was my age. It was rare for a single, 40-year-old man to sing in the choir.
Judy introduced me to Tom. He blinked as he said, “Hello.” My first impression was that he was a kind person who was on the shy side.
Tom sat with his fellow tenors behind the alto section. While I was intrigued by his kind eyes, he was intrigued by the back of my head, which looked “sweet.”
Judy was the mastermind behind Tom’s choir membership in order to introduce us. I was a soon-to-be divorcee who enjoyed theme parks, and Tom was a roller coaster enthusiast. If nothing else, at least we could become theme park buddies.
Carolyn, the choir director, was also “in on it.” Ironically, Carolyn’s husband Garry officiated at my first wedding ceremony in Des Plaines. Now that I was “on the market” again, Carolyn hoped that Tom and I would click.
In May 1994, Judy and Tom invited me to have dinner every Thursday night with them, other choir members, and Brandon High School teachers at A1A Café in downtown Brandon. I decided to take the plunge and got to know Tom better through these shared meals and laughter. It is lucky that my new car was in tiptop shape because I drove to Brandon/Valrico two evenings a week (80 miles round trip).
Tom and I spent Sunday afternoons together as we rehearsed for the church’s Madrigal Dinner in December 1994. Tom then asked me on an official date. It would be on Friday, January 13, 1995 at the Boston Cooker Restaurant in Tampa Palms, a short drive from my home.
Something terrible happened that day: a fellow alto in chronic ill health took her own life! The phone call with this bad news interrupted a meeting. I wondered if we would keep our date as Tom wanted to help out her family. Tom was encouraged to meet me as planned by our mutual choir friends (who had been waiting a long time for this date). Of course, we had plenty to discuss during our date: our thoughts on the suicide and the impact on the woman’s family, the choir and the church.
We started going to Busch Gardens and Disney World together in the spring of 1995 and were very compatible. We walked side by side and almost but not quite held hands.
Eventually, we sang a duet (In My Life by the Beatles) at Judy’s wedding in June 1995. Those extra rehearsals brought us closer together and led to an invitation from Tom to attend the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) Fall Conference in Las Vegas in October 1995. The excitement of that trip, which included riding the Desperado hypercoaster at Buffalo Bill’s Resort and Casino, led to our first kiss. Almost four years later, we returned to Las Vegas to say our “I dos” on July 27, 1999 at the Canterbury Wedding Chapel inside the Excalibur Hotel and Casino.
Who would have guessed that buying a new car would lead to meeting my future husband?
Diane Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, and humanities. Diane is a frequent contributor to OLLI Connects, and she volunteers as a proofreader for this blog as well as for the OLLI class catalog.