Ken Brendlinger & Paul Inver

A sighting of the good-looking man who worked in men’s clothing was a highlight of Paul’s Strawbridge & Clothier trips.

“I would admire him from afar,” Paul said. “Then I stopped seeing him there.”

The man came back into view about six months later as Paul shopped at the Acme at 10th and Reed: “Lo and behold, there he was, walking up the aisle the opposite way.”

This time, Paul would do more than look. “Hi,” he said. “Don’t I know you from Strawbridge’s?”

“Yes, I used to work there,” Ken replied. Ken deduced the older woman shopping with Paul was his mother, and he did not want a mama’s boy.

“I managed to get from Ken that he had opened his own clothing store [In Shape, which sold men’s athletic wear],” said Paul. “I then proceeded to visit that store, and I picked up a card from the front counter.”

Paul, then 28, called In Shape, asked for Ken, and explained who he was. “Do you want to meet for drinks or coffee?” he offered.

“Thanks, but no thank you,” said Ken politely.

A second call yielded the same result —- something Ken’s business partner, Michael, found perplexing. Ken’s explanation — that a man who shopped with his mother surely still lived with and was likely dependent on her — did not change his mind. “Oh, go out with him one time,” Michael said. “What harm can it do?”

Ken, then 33, was flattered, but he was tired of immature men and feared Paul was more of the same. “I wanted somebody who was mature and knew what they wanted,” he said.

So did Paul. “I got the sense, before I really even knew him, that he was ambitious and stable, not a kid who was only into partying, and I wanted to be with someone like that,” Paul said.

Ken hadn’t seemed annoyed by his calls, only hesitant. Something told Paul to call one more time, and that time, Ken said yes.

They met at Montserrat on South Street. Paul learned that Ken also taught kindergarten in Philadelphia. Ken learned that the woman with Paul at Acme was not his mother, but an older neighbor who did not drive. Paul not only had his own place, he was managing the food distribution business his father founded, Philip Inver & Son Inc. When his father retired, he renamed it P. Inver Wholesale Foods.

“I don’t remember if [dinner] was good or not, but I was so enjoying the company,” Ken said.

The two also discovered a mutual love of Broadway that night, and, coincidentally, the Tony Awards were on. Paul invited Ken to watch at his place, which was also fun — until Ken discovered he had lost his keys. His best friend came to the rescue. The next weekend, they took an overnight trip to New York City, and within a few weeks, declared themselves a couple.

“I originally liked that he had his own business, which meant that he was stable and secure,” said Ken. “Now I love him because he has a kind heart.”

Paul loves that Ken is supportive and kind to him. He is very proud of how kind and supportive Ken was to his students at G.W. Childs, T.M. Pierce, and Albert M. Greenfield elementary schools over his 35-year career. The couple often runs into Ken’s former students or their parents. “They always comment about how Ken was their child’s favorite teacher or most important teacher,” Paul said. “I kvell over — I bubble over with emotion over — the kind of individual Ken has always been. I’m proud to be his partner.”

Partners become husbands

A year into their relationship, Paul, who is now 68, and Ken, now 73, began searching for a home to share. In December 1984, they moved into a Queen Village townhouse.

Two decades later Ken invited Paul to dinner at the former Venture Inn and handed him a large envelope. Paul found two plane tickets to Toronto, which he thought was a lovely 50th-birthday present. Ken told him to look at the papers beneath. “It was an application for a marriage license,” Paul remembers.

“Will you marry me?” Ken asked.

Paul jumped up, kissed Ken, cried, and said yes.

This was about more than love, Ken said. “Everybody said, ‘You could have a commitment service in the U.S.’ Yes. But that wouldn’t have given us legal recognition, and I needed to have legal recognition in case one of us was ever in the hospital, so we could be there for each other. And for inheritance reasons,” Ken said. Even though their marriage wouldn’t be legally recognized at home, an official marriage license from Canada could serve as persuasive evidence, he reasoned.

They married at Toronto City Hall on Nov. 28, 2003. The manager and assistant manager of their bed and breakfast were witnesses.

They were barely back in Philadelphia when they were reminded that marriage equality was still a fight. A customs agent told them to separate and come up one at a time, as only families could walk up together.

“We are family,” Ken told him. “We just got married in Canada.”

“We don’t recognize that here,” the agent said.

“I don’t care if you don’t recognize it,” said Ken. “We’re still a family, we’re still married, and we’re coming together.” The agent acquiesced. Afterward, another agent approached them. “Good for you!” she said. “You stood your ground.”

The coupled later honeymooned in St. Croix and have enjoyed traveling around the country and the world. For Paul’s birthday in 2010, Ken gave him a Broadway walk-on role in Jersey Boys, which he had won in a charity auction. At home, they love spending time with friends, family, and Mason, their godson who is now 12. Mason’s mother, Sadye, was Ken’s last student teacher before he retired in 2008.

Paul retired in 2014, the same year marriage equality became law in Pennsylvania. By early 2015, the couple had sold their Queen Village home and moved to their Miami Beach condo, which had long been a dream. Ken had gone back to work at Macy’s in Philly and he got a transfer to a Florida store. Paul took a part-time job at Publix, a grocery store, which is where he was in June 2015 when Ken called, jubilant about the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that made marriage equality the law across the country.

“It was so emotional for us, and for many of our friends all around the country whose marriages were also recognized,” said Paul.

Husbands support husbands

In 2016, Ken had a stroke that affected his mobility on his left side. He has made significant progress but still relies on Paul. “I have to walk with a cane. I am still in physical therapy. He helps me shower, he helps me get dressed. He gets my meds, makes my food, does the laundry,” Ken said. “I could not function without him.”

“It’s been fulfilling,” said Paul. There were challenges, mostly at first, when Paul had to learn new skills, such as managing Ken’s medication, and take on roles that were traditionally Ken’s. “Ken was always the fixer, the handyman of the two of us, and I was Ken’s assistant,” he said. Ken still has the know-how, but Paul’s hands now do the work.

In April 2017, the couple moved back to Philadelphia for better health care and now live in Rittenhouse Square. They see family and friends and play mahjong and card games with neighbors every week. They enjoy local theater. Their traveling has, by their standards, slowed, but they still go to New York to see plays, and, assuming COVID rates don’t squash their plans for a third time, the couple will fly to Argentina and cruise to Antarctica in 2023.

This summer, Ken and Paul marked 39 years together. Two weeks from today, they will celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary.