Ebonne Lee Ruffins and Keith Leaphart

Aug. 22, 2020, in Philadelphia

The man speaking at the UNCF Mayor’s Masked Ball in March 2017 caught Ebonne’s ears and eyes. “Who is that?” she asked her friend.

Ebonne recognized Keith’s name from the first time she had heard it, several months before. A friend in New York couldn’t believe that Ebonne, who is Comcast’s vice president of local media development, had never met Keith, the medical doctor turned entrepreneur who chairs the Lenfest Foundation, founded Philanthropi, and is a member of The Inquirer’s board of directors. The friend had suggested they might have much in common.

Then that June, Ebonne attended a Comcast Joint Diversity Council event and was introduced to the newest council member: Keith.

Fast forward to the fall diversity council meeting, where Keith walked up beside her at the buffet. “It’s great to see you again,” he said. He was hoping she’d be there.

They spoke until the meeting began and exchanged cards before parting. “Can we pick up our conversation again?” Keith emailed the next day. Ebonne thought he had Comcast-related questions until she got his text a few days later: “Are you single? I’m asking for a friend.”

“I am,” typed Ebonne. “Who’s your friend?”

Three years ago last week they went to South Philly’s Barcelona Wine Bar for a first date that was full of surprises.

“We had so much in common, and there was just so much joy,” said Ebonne, who is now 37. “We laughed so much. We had this easy banter. Even the waiter said we had such great energy together.”

“She has a lovely disposition,” said Keith, now 45. “She is extremely intelligent and stimulated my intellect, and she is the kindest person you will ever meet.”

Ebonne Lee Ruffins and Keith Leaphart with Keith's sister, Shelley, who passed away soon after the couple got engaged. Ebonne and Shelley were so close that they also considered themselves sisters.
Courtesy of the couple
Ebonne Lee Ruffins and Keith Leaphart with Keith's sister, Shelley, who passed away soon after the couple got engaged. Ebonne and Shelley were so close that they also considered themselves sisters.

Their conversation took a serious turn in his car after dinner, when Ebonne asked Keith to tell her more about his sister, Shelley.

Shelley had breast cancer, Keith said, and was about to have major surgery.

Ebonne told Keith that more than a decade earlier, she, too, had faced cancer and had the same procedure done. She asked Keith to give his sister her phone number. Ebonne and Shelley spoke soon after and before long considered each other sisters. “I fell in love with her before I fell in love with him,” Ebonne said. But that didn’t take long, either.

Ebonne and her family spent the 2017 holidays in Hawaii, while Keith, who was previously married, took his son Jayden, now 13, on a trip with four other families to Universal Studios. “I missed him, and that’s when I really knew I wanted to be with him,” Ebonne said.

Shelley did very well at first, but by 2019, the cancer returned. She was in the hospital during that year’s Penn Relays but was so glad to know what her brother had planned for the huge Relay party Ebonne’s parents, Gloria and James, have thrown for 46 years and counting.

“I knew Ebonne’s friends and family from all over the country would be there, and I told her parents what my plans were,” said Keith.

Ebonne’s mother asked her to cut the cake. As she began, Keith tapped her on the back. She turned to find him kneeling.

Ebonne Lee Ruffins, Keith Leaphart and Jayden, with Pastor Marshall Mitchell
Rich Wah of Rich Wah Photography
Ebonne Lee Ruffins, Keith Leaphart and Jayden, with Pastor Marshall Mitchell

“Will you marry me?” Keith asked. “Yes!” said Ebonne, and everyone cheered.

Keith and Ebonne FaceTimed his sister, and the three celebrated together virtually.

Shelley died less than a month later at age 49.

Needing something to look forward to, the couple chose June 20, 2020, as their wedding date, and Ebonne threw herself into planning a destination celebration in Montego Bay, Jamaica. There would be a welcome barbecue, a spa day, a sunset ceremony on the beach, and a reception for 175 at a former sugar mill. Guests would stay in villas that would raise flags representing the ways they knew one another — the couple’s universities and fraternity and sorority, for example. Since it was Father’s Day weekend, the dads would get coupons to share fishing, golf, and tennis lessons with their kids.

On Ebonne’s March wedding-planning trip, two passengers on the plane wore face masks. By April, the resort shut down and it was clear COVID-19 wouldn’t be over anytime soon. The couple reluctantly canceled their plans.

“This was going to be such a special moment for us and our families and friends, and I was really devastated when I realized we had to cancel and move on,” said Ebonne.

Getting married was the most important thing, the couple agreed. On a summer walk, they picked a date just two weeks away: Aug. 22. Ebonne said a wedding in their Roxborough backyard with their immediate families would be enough. She didn’t want to plan another wedding, though — that was on Keith.

From the wedding of Ebonne Lee Ruffins and Keith Leaphart. From left to right: Parents of the bride, James and Gloria; Ebonne and Keith; father of the groom, Frank
Rich Wah of Rich Wah Photography
From the wedding of Ebonne Lee Ruffins and Keith Leaphart. From left to right: Parents of the bride, James and Gloria; Ebonne and Keith; father of the groom, Frank

Keith was determined to plan something way beyond “enough.” He called wedding planner Tameka Pullen, and they so carefully hid what they were up to that Ebonne thought Keith had only ordered string lights and a runner for the backyard.

Ebonne spent the night before the wedding at the condo where she lived before their engagement. Keith sent a car to pick up her and her parents, but instead of heading toward Roxborough, the driver turned east on the Parkway. “Excuse me, sir, you’re going the wrong way,” she said kindly to the driver. He kept right on driving. She grew more insistent and frustrated until finally, the car stopped in Center City. “Not here!” Ebonne said. “We’re going to be late!”

“It’s OK,” said her father. “We’re making a quick stop.”

The elevator kept going up. When she stepped off, Ebonne saw her dress. There were so many calla lilies — the same flowers she had selected for Jamaica. The photographer came in, and then the videographer. Maybe this was a photo stop?

Her father handed Ebonne a note from Keith: “I will always want you to feel like you’re on top of the world,” he wrote.

She lifted her eyes from the paper and the condo’s window shades rose, revealing a 270-degree view of the city.

“Follow me,” her dad said.

Ebonne Lee Ruffins and Keith Leaphart. He surprised her with a "pop-up wedding" on his friend's balcony overlooking Philadelphia.
Rich Wah of Rich Wah Photography
Ebonne Lee Ruffins and Keith Leaphart. He surprised her with a "pop-up wedding" on his friend's balcony overlooking Philadelphia.

Out on the balcony of Keith’s friend’s condo she saw Keith, Pastor Marshall Mitchell, Jayden, her soon-to-be father-in-law, Frank, and a few other family members and friends.

“I need a minute,” Ebonne said. “This is happening, and it is happening in the clouds.”

Keith’s older son Jordan, now 22, and niece Trinity, who are both college students, could not attend in person but watched on Zoom along with about 200 others.

During their vows, Keith promised he would never keep a record of any wrongs — at least not his wrongs, he added to laughter. “You’re my Michelle Obama,” he told her, because she gives him the confidence to face the world.

Ebonne Lee Ruffins and Keith Leaphart
Rich Wah of Rich Wah Photography
Ebonne Lee Ruffins and Keith Leaphart

Ebonne thanked Keith’s late mother, Ethelyn, for giving him her heart. She promised to be his biggest cheerleader and safest space. Ebonne promised Jayden, whom she calls her bonus son, that their home would be filled with love, laughter, and unconditional support.

They danced to Luther Vandross’ “So Amazing” and enjoyed dinner on the balcony.

“I threw a pop-up wedding!” said Keith.

“It was spectacular” said Ebonne. “He earned major points.”

A larger celebration with more family and friends will be held as soon as it is safe. The engraved coffee cups, luggage tags, and bracelets originally purchased for Montego will be handed out then, Ebonne said. “But first, there will be hugs.”