At Northside High School in Atlanta, a track star named Gerry Purdy and a horse-loving senior named Alicia Grant were preparing to graduate. They had been going steady for two years and were certain they would marry and spend the rest of their lives together. But like so many young couples, they had different ideas about when that would happen.
On graduation night, they went to a party where Gerry had a wild idea: Why didn’t they run away that night and elope? Alicia said she wasn’t ready; she wanted to go to college first.
That fall, Gerry went to Clemson on a track scholarship while Alicia studied journalism at the University of Georgia. They tried to stay in touch, but it was hard in those days before cell phones and text messaging.
Their last date was a dance featuring the Platters, a doo-wop group known for songs such as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. They knew they were growing apart.
They would not see each other again for 45 years.
A few years after they parted, Gerry moved to California, earned a doctorate in computer science at Stanford and became a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and technology analyst. Alicia stayed in Georgia and went to work for Delta and then the mobile home division of the Bendix Corp.
By the summer of 2006, both in their 60s had been married twice, with eight grown children between them. Their second marriages had lasted more than 30 years but seemed to be unraveling amid talk of divorce.
That’s when the e-mail arrived: The Class of ‘61 was holding its 45th reunion.
Thanks to the Internet, there’s no shortage of ways to track down people from the past these days. ZabaSearch, Classmates.com and other Web sites make it easier to find old friends and lost loves. One of the sites —- Maidenname.net —- plays to the longing and wondering many of its visitors feel with a come-on line that asks, “Where is she now?”
When Gerry received the reunion e-mail, he had been reading a novel, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” about a couple whose life is complicated by a strange condition called Chrono-Displacement Disorder. At a moment’s notice, the husband would zoom through time and leave his wife behind, perplexed.
It wasn’t that hard. All he had to do was go to the Yahoo user group for the reunion, and there she was: Alicia Grant Mitchell.
Gerry sat down to write her an e-mail. It should have been simple for a man who has published several books about computing (and is working on one about their love affair): Hello, remember me? Are you going to the reunion?
Instead, he labored over the note for hours.
“Here I was, a venture capitalist who had traveled around the world,” he said, “and something like this reduces you to an elemental level. All you care about is getting attention from an attractive woman.”
He pressed “send.” She responded.
After a few days of e-mails, Gerry was ready to make the next move: a phone call. He wrote everything he wanted to say on a 3-by-5 card, as if he were making notes for one of his technology talks. He wanted to stay on message.
Alicia was in a parking lot when her phone rang.
“This is Gerry.”
“Gerry who?” she answered. “I don’t know any Gerrys.”
He realized the problem immediately. In high school, he had pronounced his name Gary. Years later, he acquiesced to the way most people said it —- Jerry.
When he explained that he pronounced his name differently now, she thought to herself, “He’s gone weird.”
They recovered from that shaky beginning and soon were racking up 3,000 minutes a month on their cell phones. They fell into a happy time warp, reminiscing about their old days together when he was a wiry boy with a flat-top and she was a petite girl with a pageboy.
They talked about her horse shows. His track meets, where he set a state record in the javelin throw. Their dates at the Southeastern Fair, the 7 Steers restaurant, the Piedmont Drive-in —- all gone, like so much of the Atlanta they had known.
They laughed about the time Gerry went to North Carolina with Alicia’s family, and the motel manager knocked on her door with a warning: “I just wanted to alert you that a man is running around the parking lot in his underwear.”
“I think that’s my daughter’s boyfriend,” Alicia’s mother replied. Running shorts were a bit shorter in the early ’60s.
Barely a month after the first e-mails, Gerry finally came out and said what they both were thinking as he waited for a flight in the Las Vegas airport.
“You know what’s happening here, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” she said. “We’re falling back in love.”
They arranged to meet over Labor Day weekend in Florida.
Later that month, at the class reunion in Atlanta, everyone could tell they were an item.
Gerry and Alicia decided to live together. That autumn, just three months after their first contact, he left California and moved in with her in Atlanta.
As Gerry slipped a golden band on Alicia’s finger, he almost burst into tears thinking about how long it had taken.
His bride was wearing the charm bracelet he had given her 47 years before, when their hearts were young and their future seemed so obvious.
From a story by Jim Auchmutey in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Atlanta, Georgia.