Lucky in love: Fate – and VCU – brought these happy couples together

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Roses are red. Violets are blue. But they really should be black and gold, judging by these stories from couples who found love through Virginia Commonwealth University. In preparation for Valentine's Day, we turned to social media to ask the VCU community to submit their love stories, and got many more than we could use. Below is a sampling of some of our favorites.

Brian and Nonie

Nonie Barnstein was working as a secretary on the 12th floor of Sanger Hall in 1982 when she first spotted Brian, who was working as a lab technician at a research laboratory in the building.

“The elevators there were notoriously slow, so everybody spent a lot of time waiting for them,” Nonie said. “I kept running into this very cute young man.”

Nonie would take any opportunity she had to ride the elevator and chance seeing Brian in the lobby. “If anybody needed something hand-delivered, I’d always say I’d be happy to do it,” she said.

One day, Nonie noticed that Brian was wearing a pin with a cat on it. Nonie had a black cat. Finally, she had a conversation starter.

“I think I said to him, ‘Do you like cats?’” she said. They exchanged stories about their cats while they waited for the elevator. Later that week, Brian invited Nonie to meet him and some friends at Matt’s Pub in Shockoe Bottom on the upcoming Saturday night. That was in January of 1983. They were engaged in June of that year.

“Once we got married, all of the cats moved in together and everybody got along beautifully,” Nonie said. “We laugh that while some people think black cats symbolize bad luck, they were actually good luck for us. That and the long wait for the elevators in Sanger Hall.”

Becca and Chris

When Becca Morrissette first joined the Peppas, VCU’s havoc-raising pep band, she was drawn to some of the group’s wackiest members, those individuals whose antics help make the band one of the most entertaining and unpredictable in college basketball. Among the band members who stood out to her then was a saxophone player named Chris Sclafani, who stacked unusual hats high atop his head, earning the nickname “Crazy Hat Guy.”

“I said, ‘I want to be friends with that guy,’” she said.

Becca and Chris soon became close through long practices, wild games and steady travel. Their bond was solidified during the men’s basketball team’s 2011 run to the Final Four. “You share something like that with someone and you never forget it,” Chris said.

Becca began to find her own personal fit within the Peppas, transforming each game into “Ginger Rage,” a raw, screaming trumpet player who emerged as one of the Peppas’ most recognizable characters. Chris was proud of Becca for letting her crazy out.

“If you’re a sane person trying to be a Peppa, it’s like a caterpillar trying to be a bird,” he said.

Through it all, the two remained friends – there was no move toward becoming a couple. It wasn’t until both had graduated that they realized their friendship had taken a romantic turn. It took them five years, but they say it took no one else by surprise.

“It was one of those things where everyone saw it coming except for us,” Chris said.

They both cite shared interests as a key to their relationship, as well as reliable kindnesses for one another. Ultimately, though, the central component may be their tendency to stray a bit from normal.

“We’re both out of our minds,” Chris said. “And it’s awesome.”

Anthony and Michael-Birch

Photo by Matt Morton
Photo by Matt Morton

Anthony Smith and Michael-Birch Pierce knew each other only in passing when they were invited to the same fondue party one night in 2010. In fact, Anthony had made a literal pass at Michael-Birch four years before when they were both students at VCU – dropping a note on his sketchbook one afternoon while Michael-Birch, a senior fashion design major, ate lunch at a picnic table near the Pollak Building. In a matter that seems certain to remain under affectionate dispute, Michael-Birch says they had met the night before and Anthony should have known he was already dating someone. Anthony is certain he did not know this.

Tragically, Michael-Birch’s boyfriend later passed away, and Michael-Birch did not see anyone seriously for three years afterward. Then, he was seated next to Anthony at the fondue party. The two fell into effortless and lively conversation, and the party quickly became a two-person event as far as they were concerned.

“There was an instant recognition,” Anthony said. “That’s what you’re looking for.”

Anthony and Michael-Birch both felt a sense of relief at the ease of their match. There was no effort, no awkward silences, no straining for a source of conversation. “Every time we hung out, we would talk for hours,” Michael-Birch said.

Michael-Birch said the couple knew within six months that “we were both in it for the long haul.”

Today, Michael-Birch, a fashion designer and fiber artist who teaches in the fashion department at VCU, and Anthony, a musician, teacher and musical director for theater, live happily in Church Hill with their two dogs. Workaholics with thriving artistic practices, they say they still revel in the rare quiet moments when they can relax and talk the way they first did when fate sat them alongside each other.

Grant and Bella

Grant Gerlich noticed the pretty girl almost immediately as she boarded his bus one fall day in 1981 outside the apartment complex where he and many other VCU freshmen lived. In a bright banana-yellow coat, she was hard to miss. Over the next few months, he saw the girl at the Up Top Sub Shop — now a tattoo parlor — and even attended her birthday party in February. But he didn’t learn her name until the Spring Fling in April: Bella Karr.

Bella didn’t see Grant on the bus, but she remembers seeing him at the sub shop.

“At that time, he rolled his own cigarettes, and I asked to try the cigarette roller,” she said. “Of course, I was flirting a little, but the idea of rolling cigarettes was interesting to a naive college freshman.”

Later, when they officially met at the Spring Fling, they had so much fun dancing that Bella suggested they go out.

“On our first date, after dancing, we literally talked all night,” Bella said. “You see that in movies and are ‘Right, like that happens,’ but we did.”

They were an item from that moment, rooting for the Rams over the years and witnessing the birth of Gwar (Grant broke his foot at the band’s first concert and Bella helped him to the car). In 1988, they married at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in the center of the Monroe Park Campus. While their careers have them living in different states — Grant in North Carolina and Bella in Texas — they manage to see each other each month and still have a fond memory of a shared home.

“VCU and Richmond will forever be remembered as an amazing part of our lives,” Grant said. “It’s been 33 years and we’re still together."  

Drew and Grace

On the snowy Monday morning of March 5, 2012, the VCU men’s basketball team was preparing to meet its counterpart from Drexel University in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game. They were two teams that had only met once before that season – familiar with one another, but only casually acquainted.

As the teams inside the Richmond Coliseum prepped to renew their relationship, outside in the student ticket line another couple of casual acquaintances were about to reconnect.

Grace Charriez was a first-year VCU student just beginning her fandom with the Rams.

“A guy I had only met twice before in my hometown happened to be my Facebook friend and had recently transferred to Drexel,” she said. “I posted a picture about how VCU was at the top and how excited I was about the championships. This same guy, Drew Johnson, told me he was coming down with a group from Drexel to attend the game and how he was sure they would win.”

Drew and his friends found Grace, stood with her in line, and continued the trash talk.

“The whole time Drew swore Drexel would win, and how when they win all the students rush out to the court so we should wait for him outside,” Grace said.

Well, the Rams won the game inside.

“Drew had to walk past hundreds of screaming VCU fans while all dressed in Drexel colors and face paint to find my group of friends afterwards,” Grace said.

But one could argue both Grace and Drew won the game outside.

“Three years later we are still together,” said Grace, who is pursuing a master’s degree in the School of Social Work. “We both now live in Richmond, and we attend at least one VCU game a year. Thanks VCU!”

Nicole and Lindsey

Photo by Tara Gibson
Photo by Tara Gibson

Lindsey Oliver and Nicole Pries did not set out to be the face of marriage equality in Virginia, but the couple –  both graduates of VCU – nevertheless found themselves as the first in line to exchange vows once it became legal in the commonwealth.

“We had decided that if we were both in town we were going to make an effort to get married on the first day that it was legal in Virginia,” said Nicole, who received her master’s degree from VCU and is a professor in the School of Social Work. “But, like most people, we had no idea that it was going to be that day.”

Nicole and Lindsey anticipated long lines at the courthouse on Oct. 6, 2014, the day same-sex marriage became legal – and, coincidentally, the three-year anniversary of their commitment ceremony.

“We met at home, I put a tie on, she changed her dress and we drove down [to the courthouse],” Nicole said. “Right as we pulled up into the parking lot, the announcement came on the radio that at 1 p.m. they were going to start issuing marriage licenses.”

As they walked in, hand-in-hand, they were met by a throng of reporters and cameras, which followed them to the clerk’s office.

“It wasn’t until we actually got into the clerk’s office that we realized, ‘It was us! We were the first!’ We looked at each other and we said, ‘Do you want to do this?’” Nicole said. “We could have bailed and let somebody else be first, but we took a moment, looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And the rest is history.”

Paul and Vanessa

Even as a newly minted freshman at VCU, Vanessa Diaz knew it takes two to tango. After skimming a list of Welcome Week events, Vanessa, who already loved to dance, decided to check out Salsa on the Plaza. During a beginners’ workshop, she realized she was slightly more advanced than most of the other dancers and started to look around for someone with more experience. That’s when she spotted Paul Zaldana.

“I didn’t know him,” she said. But after noticing his dance skills, she said to herself, “Hey, I’m going to ask him to dance.”

Paul, who was a junior economics major at the time and only decided to attend the event at the last minute, was pleasantly surprised. “For a girl to come up and ask to dance is very untraditional in the dance world, so I was like, ‘Oh cool, I love this!’” said Paul, who has had formal training in ballroom dancing.

He and Vanessa, who graduates this spring with a degree in graphic design, struck up a friendship that lasted six months before they officially became a couple. Over the years, their involvement in two student clubs – the Latin Student Association and Muevelo, a dance team – brought them closer together.

These days Paul, who graduated in 2013, visits campus regularly to spend time with Vanessa, sometimes eating at Shafer Dining Hall or attending activities in the Student Commons. As for their dance floor chemistry? “[At first] there was a clash in styles,” Paul said, “but as she learned more and I learned more as well, we learned how to make our styles come together and complement each other.”

Colleen and Randy

In the mid-1980s, Colleen Renaye and Randy Conner were part of a pack of friends who attended VCU together. The two were not particularly close, though Colleen remembers now that Randy was “very handsome” and helped her and her friends move at least four times during their time at the university.

Decades later, Colleen sent Randy a friend request on Facebook, and the two communicated online from time to time. Then, very much out of the blue, Randy sent Colleen a private message and asked her out on a date. She was astonished – and “really nervous.”

The old classmates reunited at the Galaxy Diner in Carytown. One of the first things Randy said was, “Tell me what you have been doing the last 25 years.” She laughed, began to relax, and soon they were hitting it off. They got ice cream after dinner and walked around Carytown for hours, talking and catching up.

“It was like the … years just melted away,” Colleen said.

“I had the same experience,” Randy said. “We just felt incredibly comfortable with each other. I felt like I could tell her anything.”

When Colleen returned home, she called her best friend and told her, “This is the man I’m going to marry.”

That was three years ago. The couple will be married in June.

Jesse and Rebecca

Rebecca Pidcoe and Jesse Castellani met when they were placed in the same section of the VCU Symphonic Wind Ensemble. Both played the French horn. Dating within sections of musical ensembles is uncommon, Rebecca said, owing to the inherently competitive nature of the arrangement.

Still, she knew she was interested in Jesse right away, attracted to his sense of humor and his contagious smile, and Jesse, though shy about it, knew the same thing, finding her goofiness and lack of superficiality endearing.

They became fast friends, practicing three days a week in both the Symphonic Wind Ensemble and a smaller ensemble. Eventually, after a few semesters, Jesse mustered the courage to ask Rebecca out during a music trip to North Carolina, and they have been a couple ever since. They are engaged to be married in October.

Alumni now, Rebecca and Jesse agree VCU played a crucial part in their pairing. Jesse called the university the foundation of their relationship, while Rebecca joked that VCU served as his “wing man.”

Still appreciative of the role their alma mater played, Rebecca and Jesse continue to make music through the university as members of the VCU Horn Choir. In that capacity, they have had the opportunity to play duets together, including pieces with themes of love. They agree that romantic relationships between musicians can raise the quality of a piece of music by adding a depth of feeling to the work.

“The expression that you’re able to create is much more intimate,” Jesse said.


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