A couple holding hands while walking down VCU's Shafer Court.
Eliza Thrall and Greg Podolak stroll down Shafer Court on VCU’s Monroe Park Campus. (Kevin Morley, VCU Marketing)

Rams at heart

Couples share their Ram romances, from study dates at Cabell Library to a match made on a study abroad trip.

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Countless romances have blossomed at Virginia Commonwealth University over its 180-plus-year history. Many of those have grown into long-lasting relationships that span decades, and occasionally even result in saplings (e.g., children) who grow up and attend VCU, expanding the university’s family tree.

Below, VCU News shares the stories of nine happy couples who either got their start at VCU or watched their relationship take root and grow deeper and stronger during their time here. 

The Canady family.
Ben and Brooke Canady with their two sons.

Ben and Brooke Canady

It all started with a little white lie.

As an English major in 2000, Ben would regularly read textbooks in the VCU Bookstore, he said, “without engaging in any exchange of currency, which would have beleaguered my college-era bank account.” (Read: He didn’t want to pay for books. 

That system worked until he enrolled in a “particularly rigorous” art history class. He needed more time with that particular text than the bookstore hours allowed. Begrudgingly, he hauled the $60 volume to the checkout line where a bubbly, blue-eyed girl appeared with apple blossoms in her hair. (“When am I not wearing apple blossoms in my hair?” his now-wife said with a laugh at his recollection of events.) 

“I have that book,” she told him. “Are you an art student?” 

“I’m an artist for sure,” he fibbed. “What about you?”

Ben and Brooke Canady.
Ben and Brooke earlier in their relationship.

Apple blossom girl, aka Brooke, told him she was indeed an interior design student.

“Well, that’s cool,” Ben said. “And are you also a purveyor of used texts?” (Read: Would she sell him the book?) Brooke offered to lend him the book for as long as he needed. With one condition. 

“You have to take my number and take me out for a date,” she told him. “How about Friday night?” 

Brooke remembers it a little differently. 

True, she was behind him in line at the bookstore. She noticed he was carrying an art history book with a clearance sticker on it that she had bought for full price the year before. “I tapped his shoulder and said he was getting a good deal,” she said. “He asked if I still had the book and if he could buy it from me. … I gave him my number to meet up at a later time to give him the book.

“Not long after, we met in the same bookstore and I gave him the book and said he could just borrow it for the semester. At that time, we decided to go on a date.”

“You can decide” which account actually happened, Brooke said. 

Now the rest, as they say, is history.

A first date to Carytown in a Jeep with no door handles, climbs at the Manchester Wall, concerts at the now-Altria Theater, visits to Bogart’s and Piccola restaurants, and now 20 years later, the Canadys live in the mountains of Colorado, where they spend most of their time with their 6- and 9-year-old sons looking for outdoor adventures.

“We still have that book on our bookshelf,” Brooke said.

— Leila Ugincius 

The Contreras family.
The Contreras family. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Oscar and Rachel Contreras

A 2006 VCU arts-focused trip to Peru brought students Rachel Harris and Oscar Contreras together. Rachel hailed from Henrico County and loved the arts and travel, but her psychology and women’s studies double major limited her creative pursuits.

Oscar, who was born in Guatemala and immigrated to Culpeper County as a pre-teen, was studying photography at the School of the Arts

They met after landing in Lima, Peru, and clicked as friends, sketching together in the streets of Cuzco and visiting a particular café for pastries and hot chocolate each day. 

During an excursion to Machu Picchu, they went on an impromptu and risky hike that is now more restricted to the public.

On the plane ride back to the U.S., during violent turbulence, the plane dropped, and Oscar grabbed hold of Rachel in midair, preventing her from falling. 

“He saved my life,” said Rachel. “I could have broken my back.”

Back in Richmond, they organized an art show of work produced in Peru. But even though they had that connection and had experienced a life-changing trip together, it still wasn’t clear if they were a couple.

Rachel and Oscar Contreras.
Rachel and Oscar in 2006 during the VCU-sponsored trip to Peru, where they met.

“I would invite her to different places, we would walk or have meetings,” Oscar said. “So right after we did the show, by the next month in 2006, we officially started dating.”

On another VCU trip together to Guatemala, Rachel met Oscar’s grandmother and saw his childhood home.

Oscar proposed on May 26, 2007, a year after they met. They got married in 2008 during their spring break and graduated that May.

Rachel’s internship with Crossover Healthcare Ministry and Oscar’s part-time job in radio turned into full-time work. He remains the morning drive host on Radio Poder 1380 AM, a Spanish-language radio station, and Rachel now homeschools their four children and is pursuing her master’s degree in education.

“On different anniversaries, we take our children around [the VCU campus to places] that we would go to when we were meeting — Monroe Park and the School of the Arts,” Oscar said. “We remember all that history. Our kids feel a connection to VCU because they can connect with our story and how we met.”

— Dina Weinstein

Charniece and Meshac Smith.
Charniece and Meshac Smith. (Photo by Celeste Lemaire)

Charniece and Meshac Smith

Charniece and Meshac didn’t actually meet at VCU. But they consider theirs a VCU love story because of the important role the university has in their professional and personal lives.

Charniece was the first to become a Ram. She graduated from VCU in 2013 with a bachelor’s in mass communications and moved to Fort Myers, Florida, for her first communications job. In 2015, she met Meshac through Tinder. “It’s the way of millennials,” she said.

After dating a few months, she knew he was the one.

“While we were dating, I had a rough day at work,” she said. “When I got home, Meshac surprised me with an assortment of my favorite things: ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ slippers, a matcha frappuccino, and black-and-white cookies. It was a small gesture, but it was then I knew that on my worst days I wanted to have him in my corner.”

Charniece soon reciprocated that care when Meshac got sick, making him chicken noodle soup and nursing him back to health.

A newborn wearing a VCU Health onesie.
Baby Zoë, born in 2021 at VCU Medical Center.

“[She] was the best nurse I could have ever asked for,” he said. “That experience made me realize that she was the one for me. For someone to be that attentive, even though we had just met, showed me what type of person she was and that is exactly the type of person I wanted to marry.”

In 2019, the couple married and moved to Richmond, which allowed Meshac to fulfill his dream of getting his bachelor’s degree at VCU — so they could be a “Ramily.”

“It was the experience that Charniece had — the joy and pride she had being a VCU Ram,” Meshac said. “I knew that I wanted to have the same experience that helped mold the woman I love. Also, VCU has an amazing IT program, which I knew would propel me to reach my ultimate goals. … My passion is technology. … I wanted the best education behind me to help me merge my passion and profession.”

Today, the Smiths are a bona fide “Ramily.” Charniece works at VCU Health. Meshac is enrolled at the School of Business and works at the IT Support Center at Cabell Library.

Last year, they welcomed their daughter, Zoë, who was born — of course — at VCU Medical Center.

“With two Ram parents, we are hopeful to see Zoë become a future Ram,” Meshac said. “Go Rams!”

— Leila Ugincius

Herb and Tammy Hughes.
Herb and Tammy Hughes.

Herb and Tammy Hughes

The couple’s relationship began in the halls of the School of Dentistry in 1983 where Herb was a third-year dental student and Tammy was in her first year of the dental hygiene program.

While the two saw each other around the clinic, they didn’t really talk much. Tammy said she actually called her now husband “Kurt” for a while because she didn’t know his name. 

That changed when Herb asked her out on a date while she was eating lunch in the break room. Tammy didn’t think he’d call her because he didn’t write down her phone number – but Herb had memorized it and called her a few days later to go out for drinks, which turned into dinner and a night of dancing. 

After 10 months of dating, Herb was getting ready to move to Boston for an orthodontics residency. Deciding he wanted to take Tammy with him, Herb asked her to marry him and they were wed on June 16, 1984.

Herb and Tammy Hughes at their wedding.
Herb and Tammy on their wedding day in 1984.

Happily married more than 37 years, they are now a multigenerational alumni family, with two of their sons graduating from VCU. 

“If I had never gone to VCU I would have never met my husband and I wouldn’t have my family so we have very good memories there. It was a wonderful place for us to go to school,” Tammy said. 

Their oldest son, Justin, graduated from VCU dental school in 2013 and married a woman whose parents graduated from VCU around the same time that Herb and Tammy attended VCU. While the Hughes never met the other couple, they had a similar romance, with the in-laws getting married a year before the Hughes and also honeymooning in the Bahamas. 

“You’re living parallel lives with people that you never connect with when you’re there but then to connect many years later is really very cool,” Tammy said.

Both Tammy and Herb said their marriage has lasted so long because they share the same core and family values, have open communication and enjoy each other’s sense of humor.

“We’re just on the same page on raising a family, our beliefs and putting each other first,” Herb said.

 — Amelia Heymann

James and Scott Dittman.
James and Scott Dittman in front of Cabell Library. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Scott and James Dittman

Scott and James grew their careers and their relationship at VCU.

In 2017, the pair, who had gotten married on a beach in the Bahamas the year before, was searching for a way to advance both of their careers. James was a chemistry major at the University of Virginia and was applying to medical schools across the country. Scott had worked in theater and film in Los Angeles early in his career and hoped to get a graduate degree so he could teach theater.

VCU was the first medical school that accepted James. Scott researched the graduate theater program at VCU’s School of the Arts and applied.

“He got in, and we actually started at VCU at the same time,” James said.

Even though they were both busy with school, Scott and James were able to share little moments together. They would meet for dinner or lunch on campus or study together on the graduate floor of James Branch Cabell Library.

James and Scott Dittman.
James and Scott on their wedding day in the Bahamas in 2016.

“James would be studying for exams, and I would be writing my thesis,” Scott said. “The fourth floor was our spot to meet and have silent study dates.”

James noted that medical school has been a challenge, but he has been able to succeed with a supportive partner. Scott has been there every step of the way, encouraging him during the difficult times.

“Having someone at home to help support you through medical school is pretty incredible,” James said. “I have been very successful throughout medical school, and I don’t know if I would have been able to do that without having Scott.”

Scott finished his M.F.A. in theater last year, and James graduates from medical school in May. James plans to become a vascular surgeon and is applying for a residency program. Both said they are thankful for their time at VCU and that they found what they needed to enhance their careers.

“We have been very blessed,” Scott said “VCU has worked out so perfect for us. … Our lives were able to take this positive upturn by both being able to come to VCU and further our education together.”

— James Shea

Greg Podolak and Eliza Thrall.
Greg Podolak and Eliza Thrall on the Compass at VCU. (Kevin Morley, VCU Marketing)

Eliza Thrall and Greg Podolak

Eliza wasn’t looking for a relationship in spring 2019 when a friend and classmate wanted to set her up with someone from one of her School of Social Work classes.

“I was not interested in dating someone seriously, so I said no thank you,” said Eliza, who at the time was a sophomore psychology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences and now works at the VCU Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development. “About a month later, she finally talked me into giving it a try.”

Eliza looked up the guy, Greg Podolak, on Instagram and sent him a message: “hey.”

“Lowercase,” she said. “No punctuation at all.”

Greg, who was then an undergraduate and is now a Master of Social Work student at VCU, was thrilled.

Greg Podolak and Eliza Thrall.
Greg and Eliza earlier in their relationship.

“Honestly, I was just so happy she [messaged] me,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Here’s my chance.’ And it just took off from there.”

Their first date was at the Tropical Smoothie Café on West Broad Street. They had their second date within days.

But the semester soon came to an end, and Greg went home to New York while Eliza left to study abroad in Italy. They managed to text and talk on the phone every day, despite the time difference and Eliza’s lack of Wi-Fi.

“Once we both came back to campus in August, we made our relationship official, and have been pretty inseparable since,” she said.

Throughout the pandemic, Eliza and Greg have supported each other and say it helped bring them closer together.

“Greg is someone that I feel fully comfortable with. … I can tell him anything and if I’m upset, he will immediately be the person that I go to, and I just feel very safe in our relationship,” she said.

“Prior to meeting her, I was very closed off,” Greg said. “I didn’t really express my emotions or feelings, just kind of bottled them all up. Although it’s a work in progress, it’s nice to know there’s a person who I can trust and rely on and be vulnerable with.”

While they met at VCU, much of their relationship grew off campus during the pandemic. But their studies helped them find common ground. 

“He’s in social work and I was in psychology, and so we had similar classwork and also found we were interested in the same types of work and the same types of theories and stuff like that,” Eliza said. “So that was cool — VCU played a part in connecting us through our interests and our passions.”

— Brian McNeill

Naren Nimmagadda, Sonja Chaparala and their baby Neela.
Naren Nimmagadda, Sonja Chaparala and their baby Neela.

Sonja Chaparala and Naren Nimmagadda

When Sonja and Naren met during the first weeks of classes their freshman year in 2005, stars seemed to be aligning to bring them together. They realized that their mothers knew each other. And friends and classmates kept pushing them to be a couple because they all somehow knew that Sonja, who was an anthropology major, and Naren, who was an economics and biology double major, would get along.

But the two, who first encountered each other in the Honors College, weren’t so sure.

“I think all of our friends knew that we would be compatible before we even thought about it,” Sonja said. “In the beginning, it was a chance encounter and then we were slowly getting to know each other, but we really weren't thinking of anything else.”

Sonja Chaparala and Naren Nimmagadda.
Sonja and Naren in Lisse, Netherlands, in 2009.

Sonja was attracted to Naren’s curly hair for starters, and they soon became part of a group of friends who would hang out at Shafer Court or the Student Commons between classes. A year after meeting they were a couple, building memories while constantly crisscrossing campus to their dorms, houses, classes and favorite restaurants.

Their last semester in 2009, both studied abroad – Naren in Amsterdam, Sonja in Oxford, England – visiting each other and skipping graduation to take advantage of being in Europe to travel and see friends.

It took awhile to even live in the same city after graduation. During their medical school years, Naren went to Maryland and Sonja studied in Grenada. Residencies took Sonja to Pittsburgh and Naren to Boston.

“We dated for three years in that nurturing environment of VCU, and we stuck with it for those following 10 years,” Naren said.

These days, they find themselves back on a campus – at Vanderbilt University: Naren’s urology clinic is across the hall from Sonja’s neurology clinic, so they can still sometimes grab lunch together and talk.

— Dina Weinstein

Aileen and Kevin Harris.
Aileen and Kevin Harris.

Kevin and Aileen Harris

When guests at Kevin and Aileen’s wedding looked at the program, they found two versions of when the couple met.

“I say we met in 1998 in Dallas at a conference and she says we met at a conference in Chicago in 2000,” said Kevin, the senior associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the VCU School of Medicine. Kevin received his Ph.D. in 2017 from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU.

In 1998, Kevin was working at the Association of American Medical Colleges. VCU was a member institution. Aileen was working as the director of admissions and minority affairs at VCU’s School of Medicine. 

One of Kevin’s friends and colleagues, Lily May Johnson, told him she knew someone who would be perfect for him. It was Aileen. Ironically, Lily May also introduced Kevin to his ex-wife.

“I said no. Lily May you are batting zero in the match-making area,” Kevin said.

But when Lily May introduced them at the National Association of Medical Minority Educators conference in Dallas, they had a brief conversation at a bar that left them with favorable impressions of each other.

About a year later, the two met again at a conference in Chicago. They attended the same group dinner and ending up sitting next to each other.

Aileen and Kevin Harris.
Aileen and Kevin at a conference.

“I asked her if she wanted to catch dinner someplace before we left the conference,” Kevin said.

That was their first official date, and they discovered they had much in common. Both had served in the military and were from the “country” — Bath County, Virginia, for Aileen and Emporia, Virginia, for Kevin.

“We had a nice conversation,” Kevin said. “After that, we continued to stay in touch. Aileen would invite me to events at VCU to speak with students and I would see her in AAMC minority affairs meetings. In 2002 we officially became a couple. We took it from there and never looked back.”

Kevin and Aileen married in 2004 and moved to Richmond in 2006 when Kevin started work at VCU. Aileen, who is now executive director of the Capital Area Health Education Center, was working at the Virginia Department of Health.

Aileen soon found herself back at VCU.

“She left there and came back to VCU to work … in the Office of Health Innovation,” Kevin said. “We both worked at VCU for a little over a year together. VCU has always been in the mix somewhere.”

The couple continues to pay homage to Lily May for her ongoing campaign to get them together and her friendship and support to this day.

“Without her making the connection and keeping it alive, we may have gone our separate ways,” Kevin said. “We have been married for 18 years now. Lily May was the spark and VCU served as a central connection point.”

— Joan Tupponce

Miriam and Bill Blake.
Miriam and Bill Blake.

Bill and Miriam Blake

Bill’s seat behind Miriam in speech class at Cincinnati Bible Seminary in 1948 gave him the opportunity to gaze at the young sophomore. After class, he noticed her in the hallway surrounded by guys begging for attention.

“I thought I didn’t have a chance with her,” said Bill, Ph.D. “A couple of weeks later, I got up the courage to call her. I asked her to go to the ice cream store and surprisingly, she said yes.”

Miriam didn’t want a serious relationship, but two months later, “we both felt like we were the ones for each other,” Bill said.

A vintage Valentines card surrounded by envelopes and postcards.
A sampling of some of the Blake love letters in the VCU Libraries Special Collections and Archives.

The next summer, Bill came to Richmond and worked part time at Dunn’s Bar-B-Que. Miriam began working at a dry cleaner in Ohio.

“We sent letters and cards to each other every day,” Bill said, noting that the collection of love letters is in the Special Collections and Archives at the James Branch Cabell Library at VCU. 

“They weren’t hot communication. We were Bible students. There was a lot of piety.”

Bill saved enough money that summer to buy an engagement ring and then hitchhiked from Richmond to Wilmington, Ohio, to surprise Miriam.

The day he arrived, Miriam was playing piano at a church in the next county. Her father loaned Bill his pickup truck and Bill drove to the church.

“I walked in and surprised her. I told her I brought her something,” Bill said. “We embraced and then I took it out of my pocket and put the ring on her finger. She said, ‘I love it.’”

Miriam and Bill Blake on their wedding day in 1949.
Miriam and Bill Blake on their wedding day in 1949.

The couple married Dec. 18, 1949, in the living room of Miriam’s family’s farmhouse. They moved to Richmond in 1961. Bill taught early European history and the history of Christianity at VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences from 1965 until he retired in 1992. He served as an adjunct professor until 2012.

Miriam, who got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from VCU, taught kindergarten and first grade in Hanover and Chesterfield counties and later substituted in the city of Richmond.

Both Bill and Miriam have scholarships in their names at the College of Humanities and Sciences and School of Education, respectively. One of Bill’s former students endowed the William E. And Miriam S. Blake Chair in the History of Christianity.

The couple was married for almost 72 years when Miriam passed away on Oct. 9, 2021, with dementia.

Miriam was the heart and soul of his life, Bill said.

“She was tremendously disciplined, an organizer and a pusher. If I wanted to stop or quit, she would say, ‘No you are going to do this,’” he said. “Whatever I am, I would not be without her.”

— Joan Tupponce