Jeff & Lisa Gelman

Through the partying students crammed into his friend’s dimly lit Muhlenburg College dorm room, Jeff saw a cute girl sitting on the floor, talking to no one.

Mustering the courage to talk to Lisa, Jeff asked why she was so sad.

“I miss my dad,” Lisa said. Her father had died less than a year earlier and she was about to have her first birthday without him.

Jeff was gobsmacked first by her openness and then his own. “I lost both of my parents when I was 14,” he told her. “They were killed by a drunk driver.”

He invited her to his dorm where they could talk privately. Lisa told him more about her father, Joe, who had died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Jeff told her that his parents, Dave and Janet, had been with his friend’s parents at the time of the wreck, and that his friend’s father had also died. Jeff tried living with his friend’s family, but it was too painful for everyone. Originally from Springfield, Mass., he tried a Boston-area boarding school, but hated it. Then his mother’s cousins from Wayne, Pa., whom he had met only once, invited him to live with them. It was a perfect fit, and their home became his home.

Jeff felt such an astonishing connection to Lisa that he summoned the nerve to ask if he could kiss her.

“She let me kiss her, but I could tell she wasn’t into it,” he remembered.

“I was not in that space; I was grieving,” said Lisa.

She liked Jeff very much. “He was very honest, sensitive, and sweet. Somebody you could really talk to,” Lisa said. They soon spent nearly all their time together — along with the six others in their friend group. Lisa made it clear that friends was what she wanted to be with Jeff, too.

I had this intuitive feeling about her, and she was this incredible person I wanted to get to know better,” Jeff said. He knew Lisa wasn’t ready for romance, but hoped when she was ready, she would choose him. She didn’t.

Eventually, Jeff dated others, too, but his feelings for Lisa stubbornly remained.

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The fall of his senior and her junior year, Lisa, Jeff, and their usual group planned to wait all night to buy Grateful Dead tickets. “It was supposed to be a fun evening together,” said Lisa. Then it got cold, and one by one, her friends began to bail.

She was already ticked off when Jeff said he didn’t want to wait in the cold, either, but it would be great if she would buy a ticket for him. “No!” she told him.

That made Jeff so mad that he stopped talking to Lisa. In 1994, he thought it was about the tickets, but now he knows it wasn’t. “She was seeing this guy when I really liked her, and so I used the ticket to get into an argument with her, so I didn’t have to talk to her.”

Two months into the silent treatment, Lisa held a party. She could not believe his nerve when Jeff walked in. “You two have to work this out,” her roommate told her. “You are driving us all crazy.”

Jeff and Lisa headed outside to talk. They hadn’t settled things when the cold night turned rainy, Lisa said. “My car was nearby, so we got in.”

Lisa had been so hurt that Jeff wasn’t talking to her. Now that they were talking again, she realized she had missed him. “It just occurred to me that I really wanted to be with him,” she said. “I kissed him.”

That time, they both felt sparks. By the end of winter break in January 1995, each had broken up with the person they were seeing. They have been together ever since.

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After graduation, Jeff became a journalist in Delaware County. They were long distance while Lisa finished college, then worked and lived for a year in Baltimore. In 1997, she joined Jeff in Pennsylvania. She worked at an environmental center and so enjoyed working with kids that she earned her master’s in education at St. Joe’s.

In February 1999, after dinner in Ardmore, Jeff got down on one knee, offered the ring he had purchased in secret, and began saying the words he had written and rewritten. “She didn’t hear any of it — she just started crying out of joy,” he said. “I stopped talking and put the ring on her finger.”

Soon after, Jeff received a job offer from the Allentown Morning Call. Lisa finished student teaching, joined him in Allentown, and took a job in Stroudsburg.

They married in 2000, celebrating with about 120 people at a country club in Ellicott City, Md. The ceremony was led by Lisa’s mother Sally’s Presbyterian minister. The couple said their vows and signed a ketubah. Several people read poems, and the couple recessed to the Indiana Jones theme.

“We are Unitarian Universalist now, and looking back, it was very U.U.” Lisa said.

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The couple has four sons: David, 17, Jacob, 16, Nathan, 11, and Elliott, 8. In the early 2000s, Jeff left the Morning Call to become a stay-at-home dad and freelance writer. When Jacob was 2, Lisa left teaching to stay home full time. She is now a part-time bookkeeper.

Fifteen years ago, Jeff began teaching at Woodlyne School — the same school he attended his junior and senior years of high school. He teaches writing, journalism, and yearbook and is adviser to the student newspaper.

The family enjoys making music together. All four sons play piano. David plays sax; Jacob, trumpet; and Nathan, trombone. They also love camping near the Delaware Water Gap. When COVID-19 meant they needed to spend more time at home, they played together in the great outdoors of their backyard, where Jeff built an obstacle course and zip line.

Whatever life brings, Jeff and Lisa value their team.

“I love her laugh, her sense of humor, and her sarcasm — most of the time,” said Jeff, now 48. “She is super smart — she taught the kids how to solve the Rubik’s Cube. I love the community she has created, and I appreciate the sacrifices she has made for our family.”

Lisa, 47, loves that Jeff keeps her laughing. “Even though it makes me crazy sometimes, I love his persistence,” she said. “He’s goal-driven. He’s very generous and very caring to the people he loves. He’s a genuinely good guy.”

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In early 2021, Jeff started to wheeze when lifting weights and Lisa pushed him to get checked out. They didn’t expect to get the results of his echocardiogram until the following week. Instead, Jeff’s doctor told Lisa to drive him immediately to Penn for emergency open heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm.

“Everything went wrong,” Lisa said. “The surgery was supposed to be six hours, it took 12. The doctor said they couldn’t close him up. I was crying — what does that mean you couldn’t close him up? And they said that literally his chest was open because his heart was too enlarged and he was bleeding.”

It seemed their entire community was praying, sending good vibes, dropping off food and gift cards, offering to take care of their kids. Lisa spent most of her time at the hospital. “I would hold his hand, and he didn’t feel entirely dead, but not alive either. I told him he needed to fight, to get back to us. We have these four kids and this big house and I did not want to do it by myself,” she said. “I wanted him back.”

Jeff doesn’t remember Lisa holding his hand. He remembers a plague of terrifying and realistic dreams about losing his wife, his kids, his job — everything important to him.

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Jeff lost 25 pounds in five days. He gained a mechanical heart valve that his family can now hear ticking across the room.

He came back to their Media home in August. At first, he was heavily dependent on Lisa and the boys, but he gradually improved, finished cardiac rehab in early December, and looks forward to returning to his classroom.

Depending on COVID and the pace of Jeff’s continuing recovery, the family hopes to rent an RV and take a camping trip across the United States or maybe Canada this summer. With or without a big trip, the couple agrees it doesn’t really matter where they are, so long as all six of them are together.