Match Made in Texas

Whether you believe in destiny or fateful meetings beneath the glow of the Tower, one thing is certain: UT is a beautiful place to fall in love.

By Marisa Charpentier | Photographs by Sarah Lim

I wrote my first love letter at age 19, just a few months after meeting a curly-haired boy on Tower steps on the eve of my sophomore year. He was funny and charming, and we talked for a while before parting ways. I went home, wishing we had exchanged numbers.

A month later, I was at a concert downtown when I saw the silhouette of his locks a few rows in front of me. It was fate, I thought. I gave him my number.

We started dating and exchanging letters. I don’t remember the exact words I wrote to him that first time, but I know it had something to do with fate. The thing is, when you’re young and in love for the first time, it’s easy to believe you’re the center of the universe, that somehow the world has conspired to bring the two of you together.

Over the last few months, I have spoken to couples who also were brought together by The University of Texas: alumni who spotted that special someone across a large lecture hall, or had a chance meeting on a sorority camping trip, or just started instant messaging that guy from Spanish class one night. Some love stories began more than 50 years ago during a time when holding hands in public was frowned upon, much less kissing. Others started more recently, with a little help from social media. The couples reminisced on dates in dining halls, post-Sixth Street food runs at restaurants that no longer exist, and strolls through an ever-changing campus.

Mike Garza, BA ’03, and Maria Escobar-Garza, BA ’04

It was the spring of 2000, and the camping trip wasn’t going as planned. Maria, a freshman, had expected to spend the night at McKinney Falls State Park, about 11 miles south of UT, bonding with the other girls pledging Sigma Lambda Gamma. But one of them invited some boys.

As the night progressed, the girls and boys started coupling off, going away to other areas of the park to hang out or make out. Maria soon found she was the only one of her friends left. She looked around to find one other guy who was also alone. They made small talk: majors, hometowns, sports. His name was Mike. He had a buzz cut and kept hanging upside-down on the swingset next to the cabin, which Maria found adorable in an innocent sort of way.

Mike thought Maria was cute. She had long, curly hair and actually laughed at his jokes. He could talk sports with her, even though they were from rival cities — Maria from Dallas, and Mike from San Antonio. The conversation was easy, which was nice since neither was particularly outgoing, and they ended up talking the whole night. As the sun came up, they made plans to see each other again over breakfast Monday, after Maria’s 8 a.m. lecture in Burdine.

That Monday, Mike waited eagerly outside for the girl he met over the weekend. She never showed. His brain filled with self-doubt. Did I suck at conversation? Was I not as funny or charming as I was trying to be? Rather than forget the whole thing, he gave it one more shot. He looked up her Littlefield Dorm room phone number in the student directory and called.

When Maria’s landline rang, she woke up in a panic. She realized she’d slept through class and stood up Mike. She apologized profusely. Relieved, Mike asked her to get lunch.

That lunch was the first of many meals together. They both lived on campus, so they started meeting up to eat at dining halls regularly. “I always got the Gold Plan, so I could feel gentlemanly and buy my girl pizza and swipe her in,” Mike recalls.

It would be another three years before Myspace hit college campuses, but they exchanged screen names for College Club, an early social networking site, and chatted on AOL Instant Messenger. They bonded over their Latino culture and love of corny jokes. They became inseparable, and the next two years grew into a movie montage of dates over dining hall pizza, meals from the Jester Wendy’s, and burgers and chocolate shakes at Player’s, a now-shuttered restaurant near campus.

When senior year rolled around, they moved into a shoebox of an apartment in West Campus together. They haven’t lived apart since, although these days, their home in Dallas gives them a little more space than that 400-square-foot unit. They walked down the aisle in 2013, an event that, much like their first date, Maria almost missed. The makeup artist at the mall who was supposed to do her makeup was behind on appointments because it was tax-free weekend. To make matters worse, Maria got stuck in traffic on the way to the venue. She arrived with just minutes to spare. “The way we first met is how we got married,” she laughs.

In Dallas, Maria is a schoolteacher and Mike works for a recycling facility. She gave birth to their daughter Isabel in 2018. The Garzas still share the same sense of humor (akin to that of a 14-year-old boy, as Maria describes it), and they both still love to eat. When she looks back at all the pieces that had to fall into place for them to meet, Maria says: “It’s cliché to say, but it was like it was meant to be.”

John Tatum, BS ’83, and Lynne Tatum, BS ’83

John and Lynne Tatum tell several different stories when people ask how they met, because neither can remember exactly how it happened. One is that they met in a final exam. Another is that they met because Lynne was dating one of John’s fraternity brothers. The third is that they met at a bar on Sixth Street. The stories are all true — more or less. After 36 years, it makes sense the facts would start to blur together.

The meeting that sticks out to Lynne is the time John approached her before a final exam for one of their electrical engineering classes. He came up, said hello, and asked how she was doing. Nervous, she only managed to smile before he walked away. “Who was that guy?” she wondered aloud to her friends. She started seeing him around, since she was often hanging out with a guy in John’s fraternity. One night, in the fall of 1981, they all went down to a bar on Sixth Street. John and Lynne got to talking and eventually he said, “I think you and I should be dating.” And that was that.

“He was cute and he was in engineering and he seemed to have some social abilities,” Lynne says. “I don’t know what it’s like now, but when I was in school, that was a rare breed.”

Lynne was a rare breed, too. At the time, she was one of only around seven women in the electrical engineering program. She was social, and John liked the fact that she took on a challenging program. Their relationship blossomed during study sessions on the third floor of the old engineering building, over the humming of vending machines. Lynne was in the fourth of her five years at UT, and John was a junior. They spent weekends going to fraternity parties and bars. Thursdays meant country western dancing at the Silver Dollar, where they waltzed and two-stepped the night away. They enjoyed sports, too, and played on an intramural softball team together. “Lynne’s the only girl I’ve ever seen turn a double play in co-ed intramural softball,” John says.

And maybe most importantly, they shared a mutual respect for each other, supporting each other’s careers and goals — a quality that has continued throughout their relationship. During their final year, John and Lynne were senior lab partners. One night before finals, the two went to dinner at one of their regular hangouts, Pancho’s Mexican Buffet. Over beef and sour cream enchiladas and tacos, John handed her a box. Inside was a ring.

Now, not only did they have to pass their final lab, but they had a wedding to plan for the coming August. “I told him, ‘You shouldn’t have asked me to marry you during our senior lab!’” Lynne recalls. “I had to get a dress, find a place to get married. He ended up doing most of the [lab] work to be perfectly honest.”

In spite of it all, they passed, graduated, and made it down the aisle. They’ve moved all across the U.S. over the years for work — New Jersey, Salt Lake City, and Atlanta, to name a few — but now they reside in Philadelphia, where Lynne works for an aerospace and defense company and John works for the flea and tick medication company he helped found. To this day, John teases Lynne about not pulling her weight in senior lab, and Lynne still teases John about proposing to her at a Tex-Mex chain. Whenever they’re in Texas, though, they make sure to stop at a Pancho’s.

Gina Chavez, BJ ’04, and Jodi Granado, BS ’07

Jodi saw Gina first. Gina, a go-with-the-flow type with a mushroom haircut, was doing what she does best — entertaining a crowd. It was 2005, and Jodi was attending Longhorn Awakening, a church retreat hosted by the UT Catholic Center. Gina was set to give the prayer talk, but she was stalling. She’d lost her speech. The staff was scrambling to find it, and when they couldn’t, Gina spoke off the cuff.

“She was so funny about it and took it in stride,” Jodi remembers.

It was a few months later, at the following semester’s retreat, when Gina noticed Jodi for the first time. They were placed in the same group, so they were together often. Jodi had dimples and a mystery about her. She had a way of speaking that made Gina want to hang on to every word. At the time, Gina had just graduated from UT with a journalism degree, but was still involved at the Catholic Center. Jodi, a first-generation college student from the small Texas town of Rotan, was in her third year as a psychology major. They felt drawn to each other in ways they couldn’t quite explain. They started hanging out, talking about their faith, and staying up until 3 a.m. watching Lost.

Gina had a boyfriend then, but she often found herself leaving his company to hang out with Jodi. One day she started talking about her feelings for Jodi with a nun from her church, who asked her three separate times if she had ever discerned her sexuality. It was a wake-up call. The nun told Gina to pray for clarity, and she did for nearly three months. “Finally, I just remember this feeling of, ‘Oh, I’m in love with her and it’s a beautiful thing,’” Gina says.

But realizing she was gay was just the beginning. Now she had to tell Jodi, who herself was struggling to come to terms with her sexuality. She’d dated girls before, but having grown up in a conservative Catholic community, she felt being gay was something she couldn’t be open about. Jodi liked Gina, too, but had tried to put the thought out of her mind. “I didn’t want it to be true,” Jodi says. “I was hoping it wasn’t because I knew how hard it was going to be.”

The initial conversation was awkward. Jodi didn’t know how to react. But they couldn’t stay apart. A week later, they made out. They began dating, but not publicly. Gina tagged along with Jodi, who loved UT sports, to watch games. Jodi went to Gina’s shows at north-campus coffee shop La Tazza Fresca, where she played and sang guitar. They didn’t have dates at restaurants or go to parties as a couple. They feared how their friends from the Catholic Center would react. And they always had this feeling that one day their relationship would have to end.

“We kept offering our relationship up to God: ‘Hey, take this where you want, and if it’s not what you want, end it,’” Gina says. “It kept getting better and better and finally, we said maybe we should stop trying to make this end and just enjoy the fact that we found an amazing person.”

Jodi and Gina are still practicing Catholics. Jodi is a teacher, and Gina, an Austin-based singer-songwriter, does communications for a nonprofit by day. In 2017, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide, Gina and Jodi were married on a ranch outside of Austin, surrounded by family and friends. Scenes from their wedding are part of the music video for “Heaven Knows,” one of Gina’s songs that describes her love for Jodi.

“I’d been in two relationships before,” Gina explains. “I felt like trying to love them was like trying to push a train to start, but trying to not love Jodi was like trying to stop one. And that was just so much harder.”

Charles Claiborne, BBA ’70, JD ’71, Linda Claiborne, ’69

Charles and Linda Claiborne saved a page of The Daily Texan from Aug. 19, 1966. It features a large black-and-white photograph of the Tower, just weeks after a shooter opened fire from the balcony, cementing the first mass shooting into modern American history. In front of the Tower stand Charles and Linda, holding hands and looking up — a symbol of love in a time of tragedy.

They were in summer school at the time, Linda a freshman, Charles a sophomore. They’d met in high school, where they went on dates before Charles went off to college. Charles was funny and drove a poppy-red Mustang convertible. Linda was pretty with bright blonde hair and a great sense of humor. They’d stayed friends when they were apart, and when Linda wound up at UT, they started going out again. But in their first few months on campus together, tragedy struck.

Just 15 minutes before the shooting began, the two had met up near the Tower to catch up between classes. Charles left for his apartment, and Linda walked on to her English class. “All of a sudden someone started yelling at 
 us to get away from the windows,” Linda says. “They had us move out of the classrooms into the hallway, but you could hear everything.”

Charles didn’t know what happened until he got home and flipped on the news. Neither knew if the other was okay. When the shooter was eventually killed, Linda and the other students were safe to evacuate classrooms. In a daze, Linda left the English building and walked up the stairs on the Main Mall to find Charles waiting for her. Finally, she felt safe. They held each other and cried.

Neither considered leaving UT after that. They found the tragedy united them and the other students, and they continued pursuing their degrees. Linda was in nursing, and Charles was in business and later, law. They immersed themselves in extracurriculars, going to football games and Greek events.

Back then, public displays of affection were uncommon, even hand-holding. The Daily Texanphotographer who spotted the two of them in front of the Tower after the shooting actually had to ask them to hold hands for the photo.

They went to Martin’s Kum-Bak on Guadalupe for grilled cheese sandwiches often. On the weekends, they went to parties together with friends from their sorority and fraternity. All the while, the Vietnam War was looming in the background.

They married in 1968 and had their first child, a girl named Laura. While finishing law school, Charles was drafted by the U.S. military in 1971. He completed his exams but had to leave before graduation, spending six months in active duty as a medic. Linda stayed in Austin. “It was hard,” Linda remembers. “I was alone, very alone.”

Over the years, they moved around Texas. Charles worked in internal revenue, estate planning, and now land development. Linda has done everything, from nursing to catering to philanthropy. These days, the Claibornes have the kind of collective memory that comes with being together for so long. One forgets a detail, and the other fills it in. In 2018, the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They spend time traveling the world and visiting their grandkids in Dallas. They also do projects together like working in the yard of their Austin home or re-doing houses (their secret to a successful marriage: “Don’t do wallpaper together.”)

“We’ve had a good life,” Linda sums up their time together. “We’ve been blessed.”