Meet Cute Magic

By Holly Morse-Ellington  /  Photography by Rich Smith

Every couple has a “how we met” story. Some are so unexpected and magical that they rise to the level of Hollywood movie script. This anticipated moment – two strangers bump into each other, fumble words, and lock eyes – sparks chemistry that can launch lasting love. In romantic comedies, this pivotal scene is called a “meet-cute.” Their first interaction may be sweet, amusing, even awkward, but there’s always a sense that the two are destined.

Think endearing brushes with fate only happen in the movies? Here, 5 local couples share the meet-cutes that introduced them to the leading man or leading lady in their life.

Captivating Pictures

Paul and Peg Rustand
Co-Founder, Widgets & Stone / Super Mom

A photo pinned to the church bulletin board caught Paul’s eye. It featured Covenant College’s new president with his family, including a daughter dressed in Sunday Best with hair neatly curled. Paul, set to attend Covenant in the fall, mused possibilities. “I looked at it and thought, aah she’d be a nice girl to meet.” But what were the odds?

When Paul arrived on campus just a few months later, a sight unfolded. Peg, a tomboy comfortable in cutoff jeans and rugby shirts who had lived on campus all summer, was attracting all sets of eyes as she paraded around freely. “I wanted to play a trick on my roommates, since we hadn’t met yet,” says Peg. “So I put on this long hippie skirt and tied a bandana around my ankle. I’m running around barefooted with a big ol’ hat on.”

Trying to throw her new roommates for a loop, she enamored Paul as well. “I was mystified,” says Paul. “It was funny, but I didn’t know her. She could be a kook for all I knew.” But freshman orientation unveiled Peg’s true identity. “That’s when I put two and two together – this is the girl from the picture?”

Peg had made an impression, but Paul, too shy to talk to her, only watched from a distance in the back row of Bible class. “Peg always came in and went right to the front row. She had no idea I existed until one day she came in super late.”

The only seat open? Beside Paul. Missing notes, she peeked at his paper but discovered an intricate work of art. “It was crazy beautiful,” says Peg. “I realized, it’s only a little window into what else is inside this person.”

“There are still so many times when I look at Paul, and it takes my breath away.”

From there, a friendship blossomed, and the two continued to learn more about each other. The picture changed sophomore year, as friendship evolved into romance.

“He would kind of draw on my face with his finger,” says Peg. “It was fun to watch his imagination and feel like I was entering into his heart.” Paul adds, “Everything in the world became amazing.”

Twenty-seven years of marriage and nine children later, the spark is still alive. “There are still so many times when I look at Paul, and it takes my breath away.”

Between Bells

Terrance and Shalon Hannah
Pastor, New Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church / Directed Studies Interventionist, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy

High school students have mere minutes to get from one class to the next. One afternoon for Shalon, minutes between bells froze. This curly-haired freshman wearing a Lakers jacket captured her attention. “The heavens parted through his hair,” says Shalon. “I don’t know if it was that satin purple jacket or because he was so tall and laughing in a way that showed his high cheekbones. I told my friend, I’m gonna marry that guy.”

The words fell out. Terrance, a basketball jock, wasn’t her type. He experienced similar mixed feelings. “I had my eye on her, but I didn’t know how to approach her,” he says. “I was a little skinny freshman. She was a mature 10th grader. I was like, she’s out of my league.”

Nevertheless, they became friends – strictly friends. “It was happenstance that we sat beside each other in algebra class,” says Terrance. “But we became study buddies because she needed help in math, and I needed help in English.”

Always the gentleman, if Shalon got cold, Terrance loaned her his jacket. “That was the thing, to wear a boy’s jacket,” says Shalon. And she worked it to keep the competition away. “This cheerleader always hinted that she thought Terrance was cute,” Shalon remembers. “So I strutted down that hallway with my little prancy self like I was his girlfriend.”

But Shalon transferred schools. They had zero contact for 15 years. Little did they know, a serendipitous meeting in Nashville would reunite them. After relocating a number of years earlier, Shalon was directing her church’s choir when Terrance, who’d recently become a minister at a different church, visited the congregation.

“I told my friend, I’m gonna marry that guy.”

Like old times, a vibrant hue prompted connection. “I wore this fuchsia suit to church,” says Shalon. “That’s when he noticed me. That’s when he pulled closer.” Chemistry reminiscent of how she first saw him clicked. “Her smile lit up the room,” Terrance says. “She had that sparkle in her eyes.”

The couple began dating, and Terrance proposed Christmas Eve of 2004 while they watched A Christmas Story. As the movie concluded, all was right with the world.

From Misses to Mr. & Mrs.

Mark and Jenni Smith
Attorneys, Husch Blackwell / Miller & Martin

Two University of Tennessee undergrads passed within feet of each other countless times. “To explain our first meeting, we have to go back to all the times we didn’t meet,” Mark says. They attended classes in the same building. Mark was good friends with Jenni’s roommate. Their fraternity and sorority paired up to build a float for Homecoming 1988, placing them in the same room for a week. Mark even saw Jenni, sort of. “Jenni was an occasional character in a cartoon in The Daily Beacon, UT’s newspaper,” says Mark. “But I just knew the character; I didn’t know Jenni.”

They led parallel lives for five years. Jenni became a lawyer in Dallas, and Mark began practicing in St. Louis. Then Jenni accepted a one-year position in St. Louis to train lawyers in online research skills.

Who attended the course? Mark. “She had the most beautiful blue eyes and the curliest hair you’ve ever seen.” But Jenni was on the clock. “I noticed he had a nice smile,” she says, “but I was trying to detach myself from that and stay professional.” Mark’s take? “She completely blew me off.”

But fate turned around at a party at Mark’s new condo, packed with more than 100 people. Framed Tennessee landscapes and orange bean bag chairs furnished the space. “I was so intrigued,” says Jenni. “I was actually being very nosey and wandering all over – we all were. There were pictures of the Smoky Mountains in the office, a UT cooler in the bedroom.”

Weaving through the crowd, Jenni finally reached the host. “When have you ever been in Tennessee?” she asked. An epiphany rose above party hubbub – he was that Mark, and she was that Jenni. After many misses, they met in St. Louis.

“I’d never been on a date with someone so easy to talk to. It seemed like 10 minutes.  I couldn’t believe we’d been there three hours talking.”

That conversation ignited sparks, and Mark asked Jenni on a date. “I’d never been on a date with someone so easy to talk to. It seemed like 10 minutes,” Mark says. “I couldn’t believe we’d been there three hours talking.”

When Dallas beckoned her back, Jenni declined. “I was already smitten,” she says. In 1996, she said yes to Mark. They live on Signal Mountain with two daughters and pictures of the Smoky Mountains.

Healing Hearts

Jimmy and Mary Ann Sanders
Co-Founders, Shepherd’s Arms Rescue Mission

At age 42, bachelor and Vietnam vet Jimmy Sanders lay hospitalized in critical condi­tion. Complications from surgery filled Jimmy’s lungs with massive blood clots. Making rounds as chaplain at Memorial Hospital was 32-year-old bachelorette Mary Ann, who’d prayed for a husband for five years. “I knocked on this door, walked in, and saw this six-foot-six, All-Ameri­can football type with feet hanging off the end of the bed,” says Mary Ann. “I thought, good gravy, that’s the most gorgeous hunk of a man I’ve ever seen.”

As Jimmy began to recover, visiting nun Sister Rose introduced Mary Ann to this brown-eyed man sporting a burr cut and pajamas. “They had me flat on my back in this bed for 11 days,” says Jimmy. “That was my first day to be able to get out of bed. The medical staff said I should not have lived.”

Following the brief introduction, Mary Ann ran to her office, prayed, then chanced a return to his room. Lingering in the doorway, she could feel this wasn’t goodbye. “I just came back to tell you I’m leaving now,” she said. Jimmy stared at this woman in a chocolate-colored blazer and plaid skirt. “I had asked God to show me the person I was to share my life with. When this beautiful lady stood at the door, I felt this is the one. You can’t let her walk away.”

There was one tiny problem. A piece of butterscotch was stuck to the roof of Jimmy’s mouth. Tongue-tied, he sputtered for words. “I wasn’t going anywhere until I heard what he had to say,” says Mary Ann. Jimmy freed the candy and asked, “Would you like to go fishing?”

“When this beautiful lady stood at the door, I felt this is the one. You can’t let her walk away.”

Mary Ann accepted, and shortly thereafter, Jimmy was released from the hospital. His first week home, Mary Ann mailed him seven apple-themed cards. The daily letters brought thoughts of Mary Ann, the apple of his eye. “His mother later told me that every day about the time the mailman would pass, Mr. Jimmy D. Sanders walked to the mailbox in his pajamas like a child waiting for the ice cream wagon.”

Jimmy and Mary Ann soon fished on Nickajack Lake and began their journey toward marriage and a mutual calling. “God said this is the lady you are to share your life with, and you all are to share me with everyone you meet,” says Jimmy. They have a daughter and 37 years of memories together.

Something New, Something Blue

Caleb “Big Spoon” and Claire Miller
Engineer, Columbus McKinnon / Author

In 2015, Claire quit her job in Chattanooga to trade fluorescent lighting for a view from nature’s window. With a backpack and a one-way ticket to California, she set out to hike the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail – solo. She sought adventures worth writing about. Fifty miles in, trudging through heavy downpours, a rain-slogged Claire entered a restaurant and a new chapter.

“There was only one seat left at the table, and it was at the head,” says Claire, who joined like-minded hikers. “At the other head, probably 20 feet down, was Caleb. I’d never talked to him before and out of nowhere he said to me, ‘Good you made it; now we can begin.’”

Caleb didn’t know how right he was. “I definitely had my eye on her,” says the New Jersey native whose trail name is Big Spoon. “She’s out in the wilderness, which for a girl to go on this journey alone took a lot of guts. This girl is not the ordinary girl you meet.”

Claire had tied her hair up in a colorful bandana. Packing light, Caleb only had two outfits. “He was wearing a bright blue shirt, and it was before it got super faded from the sun and stained from trail living,” she says. “He was so striking.”

“For a girl to go on this journey alone took a lot of guts. This girl is not the ordinary girl you meet.”

Though intrigued, Claire left without scooting closer. They met again on a hot afternoon in the southern California desert. “I’m drinking water and up comes Caleb,” says Claire. “He sits down on a rock, takes off this size-14 boot, whips out a giant pocket knife, and cuts a giant blister off his toe.” An unconventional wooing technique in the modern world, but an everyday fact of trail life – it connected. “I’m thinking, yeah, I’m interested in this person,” says Claire.

Hiking together 24 hours a day revealed deeper bonds. “You can’t hide behind makeup and fancy clothes and all the stuff you own,” says Caleb. “Your life is on your back, and you’re seeing the truest form of this person.”

Thirty days after beginning separate journeys, they married at mile 445. “We believe divine intervention on the trail and from God led to our marriage,” says Claire. The bride in boots remembers thinking, “I’m so glad I brought a white shirt. Even though it’s stained and dirty by this point, it was still white like a real wedding shirt.”

Nicknamed the Honey Spooners, they now have two Little Spoons of their own. CS

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