Shani Felder & Walter Hawkins Jr.

Aug. 8, 2021, in Bristol, Pa.

Hello there

Shani joined friends and family at a party at a West Philadelphia club, but it was an August Friday night and she had more places to be.

Just as she was walking out, Walter — on his way to see Freddy vs. Jason at the movie theater upstairs — walked in.

“We caught eyes, and he asked to talk to me a little bit,” she said.

They didn’t say much, but it was enough.

“I was attracted to her, and I had a good feeling about her,” Walter said.

“I think he was just being flirtatious and trying to see how many numbers he was going to get,” Shani said with a laugh. “And I’m just like well, ‘I got a number tonight, too.’ ”

When Walter called a few days later, he learned that Shani, who grew up in South Philadelphia, worked in child care. Shani learned that Walter, who grew up in Germantown, is a correctional officer for the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. It was easy talking to each other. At Walter’s suggestion, they saw a play and went to a club in Old City, earning him points for first date creativity.

“We had fun, we laughed, and we really enjoyed each other’s company,” Shani said.

They continued dating — each other, and other people.

By early that fall of 2003, things felt so different with Shani that Walter needed his best friend, Chance, to meet her. Walter stepped out of the car and saw Shani across the street. “I started to get a strange feeling come over me, and I didn’t quite understand what was going on,” he said. “My conscience was telling me, ‘You know you’re looking at your wife now, right?’ And I ignored it, and kept walking, but everything went in slow motion. As I continued to walk toward her, she smiled at me. And that did it. I knew right then and there that I was in love with her.”

Then in his early 30s, Walter had never been in love before.

Despite his realization, they kept things casual for two years. Then Walter called during his lunch break to ask Shani to be his girlfriend.

His question surprised her, and at first, she said no. “That hurt me a little bit, but I stayed on the phone,” Walter said. Before they hung up, she changed her answer.

Walter, who loves sports, invited Shani, who does not, to a Sixers game for Valentine’s Day. They were in their seats when she thought to herself, “Dang, I know I love him, because I’m sitting here watching basketball.”

Shani loves the way Walter cares for her. “He cares about what I feel, he cares about what I want,” she said. She admires his work ethic and the way he treats other people, too. “I always loved how he treated his mother — a man who treats his mom like a queen will treat you like a queen as well. And he is so very sweet and kind.”

Walter says Shani is loving and nurturing. “And I love the balance that she has — she is not too extreme with anything, but is right down the middle. Our personalities kind of mesh like a hand and glove and I love those things about her.”

Doubt, tests, and separation

Walter got nervous almost as soon as they began calling themselves boyfriend and girlfriend. “I was feeling like this is too good to be true, it can’t be real.”

He responded by testing Shani. “I would go out of my way to purposely disappoint her, to see how she would react,” he said. Other tests were unintentional, but looking back, Walter believes he was sabotaging his own happiness.

“If we had a disagreement, he would not talk to me for a day or two and think that was OK,” said Shani. She felt back then that if she confronted him, it would only drive them further apart.

In 2008, he asked her to marry him and she accepted, but their relationship did not progress. Following an argument in 2011 — neither remembers the subject — they didn’t talk for nine months.

Another try

“I was stubborn, and I was not a great communicator, but I thought about her every day and I still knew that somehow, someway, it wasn’t over,” Walter said.

He wasn’t sure how to fix this, but as the holiday season approached, he missed Shani so much that he had to do something. He sent a text: “How are you?”

Truthfully, Shani was having a rough time herself: “I was glad to hear from him.”

They rekindled their friendship immediately, but not their romance. A few months later, Walter invited her to a barbecue, and things began to change.

“Our communication had gotten a lot better,” said Shani. “At this point, I knew we both had to say what we needed to say, or it would never work. And I found I was able to bring up things about our relationship and our next steps.”

Walter said communicating remained difficult, but he knew he had to try. “She was forcing me to be a better man,” he said. Talking things out got much easier with practice, he said, and he and Shani agree that open, frequent communication is now a foundation of their relationship. They even schedule time to discuss their goals, individually and as a couple.

In winter 2017, Shani, who is now 45, and Walter, now 52, went to Dover Downs Casino, where they decided to start planning their wedding. The following year, they decided to live together, and Walter joined Shani in Mount Airy.

It was so them

Shani, who is now an assistant special education teacher in the Upper Dublin School District and a pediatric home health aide, and Walter, who is still a correctional officer, were married and held a reception for 100 at Falls Manor Catering in Bristol on Aug. 8. They chose the month because August is the month they first met and the month that Walter’s parents married.

During their vows, Walter added words he had written: “I’m just a humble man, and I had only prayed for humble things, which is what I received — food, clothing, shelter,” he said. “But then I prayed for a good woman, and that’s where God showed out for me. He gave me the most amazing woman any man could ever ask for.”

Everybody — especially the bride — cried.

That wasn’t Walter’s only surprise. “He was the dancer of the night!” Shani said. “I had never seen him dance like that before — it was like, ‘Who did I just marry?’ ”

Walter said he was too happy to stay still.

“It was so amazing to have all of our family and friends together at one time in the name of love,” he said. “It was just joyous.”

His and hers splurges

Shani’s antique-inspired lace dress with crystal beading was handmade by Danielle Joh (Utopian Threadz on Facebook and Instagram).

Walter rented a Mustang convertible. “It was my first time ever being in a convertible, and we literally rode off into the sunset,” he said.

What’s next?

With COVID cases going up and Shani about to start school with students too young for vaccination, the couple skipped a honeymoon. They will travel when it’s safer, but in the meantime, “We are getting a big kick out of just calling each other ‘husband’ and ‘wife,’ " said Walter.