A photo of a man and a woman holding hands next to James Branch Cabell Library
The couple had their engagement photos taken on VCU’s campus. (Courtesy photo)

Ram romances: Fraternity fine wasn’t too high a price to pay for Brandes S.G. Ash and Terrell Matthews

Soon marking 20 years since their first ‘official’ encounter, the VCU alums mix loud and quiet to find the right volume together.

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Both wanted to attend college in New York. Both wound up at Virginia Commonwealth University. And both joined Greek organizations as soon as they could.

But in reality, Brandes S.G. Ash and Terrell Matthews could not have been more different.

“Terrell is extremely quiet, and I really am not,” Brandes said. “Also, I’m constantly adding multiple new leadership positions to my resume — often at the same time. Terrell, on the other hand, picks one thing he likes and masters it well. The list of dissimilarities goes on and on.”

This June will mark 20 years since the now-married couple’s first “official” encounter. But their paths crossed often before then.

By 2003, Terrell had settled into life at VCU and had recently joined the Eta Xi chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi. Brandes, having just transferred to VCU, was determined to join Delta Sigma Theta. One of the first Greek events she attended was the Fall Block Step Show.

To this day, she remembers only two things about that show: their respective organizations winning and Terrell.

“In particular, I can vividly recall Terrell performing on stage and, for some strange reason, [me] ruminating over how cute he was,” Brandes said.

Brandes doesn’t remember seeing much of Terrell after that. Soon after joining Delta, she became president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council Greek organization chapters at VCU. She had high hopes of “whipping everyone into shape,” mandating community service and even issuing fines to chapters that failed to comply. (“My heart was in the right place, but for sure, I ticked off a few people,” she recalled.) 

As the year progressed, Brandes continued with her NPHC initiatives, and remembers showing up to one of Terrell’s chapter’s service events. 

A photo of a man and a woman sitting next to each other.
The couple in 2004 in front of a VCU residence hall. (Courtesy photo)

“It was a car wash on Broad Street, and I recall being overly critical for no reason,” Brandes said. “I remember feeling like there was more schmoozing than car washing. And I also remember Terrell being there, and making a note — either in my head, or who knows, I wouldn’t be surprised if I even said it out loud — that he was dressed in a button-up shirt, and not what I considered ‘car wash’ attire. … I was definitely a lot to deal with, and in hindsight, really needed to ‘take a chill pill!’”

In the summer of 2004, a sorority sister invited Brandes to hang out.

“Unbeknownst to me, Terrell lived in the same dorm, and when I arrived he was there, along with his [fraternity] brother,” Brandes said. “I remember thinking, ‘Why is he here?’ And it didn’t seem as if he was thrilled to see me — the bossy busybody Delta — either.”

Terrell remembers it a little differently. He didn’t see her as bossy but as beautiful.

“The first thing I remember about Brandes was her beauty and intensity,” he said. “It immediately caught my attention, and she just had this really big presence.”

In her head at least, Brandes vowed to steer clear of Terrell, but somehow, later that night, ended up right next to him, walking sort of awkwardly and silently around campus. Terrell said he would learn very quickly that Brandes is anything but silent. “She is extremely talkative, free spirited and bubbly,” he said.

That walk lasted a lot longer than either of them anticipated, and Brandes doesn’t remember who broke the ice or how.

“Now, if you ask Terrell or me how that one summer-night walk turned into us ‘just hanging out’ at McDonald’s a short while later, exchanging phone numbers, purposely falling asleep on the phone together after hours of talking and me having a special ringtone for him on my cell phone – no doubt, our respective narratives involve the other endlessly pursuing us until we gave in,” she said with a laugh.

But happily ever after didn’t start then.

For one thing, post-graduation, there were breakups. “Dear God, I could write a book on how dramatic they were,” Brandes said. “But we were young and in our 20s and just trying to figure life out.”

Then, when Brandes graduated from VCU in 2006 with a degree in English, she planned to move to Northern Virginia for graduate school. In a twist, Terrell, who had majored in mechanical engineering and graduated in 2004, already lived there at the time but had just decided to relocate to Richmond.

A photo of a man and a woman on either side of a toddler and holding his hands.
Brandes S.G. Ash and Terrell Matthews on their son, Koa’s, first day of Montessori school. (Courtesy photo)

“Which made no sense and hurt my feelings at the time, but the reality was, he simply wasn’t ready for anything serious,” Brandes said. “And I think when he was, I had finished grad school — and he had done the same — but, I’d also completely changed course careerwise and decided to become a lawyer.  By that point, I was laser-focused on finishing law school, and after that, passing the bar, and after that becoming a successful attorney and leader of the bar in D.C. It simply was not our time until it was.”    

They decided to navigate the long-distance situation, Terrell said. “There were challenges, but we were committed to spending weekends together and doing what we could to remain strong and reinforce our connection.”

They married in 2017 and have weathered all of life’s ups and downs since.

“What I know to be true is this,” Brandes said. “Life happens as it’s supposed to happen, and with whom it’s supposed to happen. No decision is ever really a bad one, and even the choices you don’t understand are somehow ordained.”

Even if, to this day, Terrell still finds Brandes too much of a people person, while Brandes still thinks Terrell is too quiet and needs to get out more.