Walter Bowne & Mary Jane Bowne
Walter, at 25, had never had a girlfriend, but, after a day spent holed up at his mom’s place writing in his journal, he had an idea.
Some of the ladies at the parties he helped his mom host for her professional singles group found him interesting. “If only you were older, or I were younger,” they would say as he chatted about books or current events while sampling the free food that the grad student found so attractive. Walter was sometimes hired to collect money at the door of the group’s events, which is where discovered that not every single professional woman in attendance was his mom’s age. He scored a couple of dates – not enough to amount to anything, but enough to boost his confidence. The group was holding an event that very night.
He put down his pen and called Alec, his fellow-writer friend: “Let’s go to a dance.”
Shortly after they arrived at #2 Boat House Row, Walter had a West Side Story, Tony-sees-Maria moment. “The best-looking girl in this room is right over there,” he told his friend, and took off in her direction.
Mary Jane, 29 and a dietitian at Temple University Hospital, had broken up with a long-term boyfriend in college and was looking for something more serious than what bar-meets offered – something she was not hopeful this Walter guy would offer, either.
He told her he had visited every state, but when she asked his thoughts on Michigan, he confessed he’d never been there.
He told her he worked in the hotel/hospitality industry, but it wasn’t long before he awkwardly clarified that he waited tables on the weekend and worked on his English master’s degree during the week.
Then, within 10 minutes of hello, they wound up in a heated debate over Hillary Clinton’s proposed health-care reform, and she found his position so aggravating!
Walter reminded himself that politics was on the do-not-discuss-yet list he and Alec had gone over in the car. “So, how about those Phillies?” he asked with a grin. Mary Jane laughed, and accepted his invitation to dance.
They danced to all the following songs save one. Walter learned that Mary Jane, who grew up in Clarks Summit, Pa., was smart and a good listener. Mary Jane learned that Walter was charming, creative, and made her laugh. She forgave his initial exaggerations, since he came clean so quickly, and gave him her business card at the end of the night.
“I couldn’t believe I had her card,” Walter said. “I kept my hand on that card the whole way home, because I didn’t want to lose it. My sweat blurred the numbers. But I still made them out, and after a day or two, I called her.”
They cried together on their first real date, watching Schindler’s List.
“He brought me tissues,” Mary Jane notes appreciatively, all these years later.
Walter brought bananas and graham crackers from his Elkins Park apartment to their first Phillies game, hoping to impress the dietitian with his healthy snacks. And he wrote sonnets for her, and she became the first reader and kind editor of every short story – which was a huge change from the girls who asked him to write their English papers, but got engaged to someone else.
With Mary Jane, Walter felt so lucky. “My initial bravado, she could see right through it,” he said. “It was the first time I could be 100% honest with someone. And she believed in me! She saw the guy who was poor as heck but working hard. She was established with a job and a career – she took a big risk. I had to give her whatever she needed, because there was no way I could give her up.”
Mary Jane didn’t want to give him up, either. “When you’re with Walter, you can feel the joy of life,” she said. “And I really felt like he valued me – that was a different experience. I felt safe, and respected, and it was abundantly clear to me that he would be a good father, and that was the best gift I could give my future children.”
Five months after their first dance, Walter took Mary Jane to Ridley Creek State Park. They ate the picnic lunch she packed, then took off their shoes and waded to a big rock in the middle of the creek where they had spent earlier dates together, warm and dry as the water rushed past them. To Walter, it was the perfect metaphor, which is why he brought her there to ask if she would marry him.
Walter, now 51, and Mary Jane, now 55, married that June in Walter’s mom’s backyard. They wrote their own vows – his romantic and poetic, hers delivering love, but also some practical advice.
Walter remains a social extrovert whose natural tendency is to enjoy life as it happens. He likes to talk out the bad stuff. Mary Jane prefers to plan as much as possible, enjoys some alone time, and needs to process stress before talking about it.
“Living with you is not going to be easy,” she told him on their wedding day. “We will need to coordinate our approaches.”
They’ve been successfully coordinating their approaches – learning to anticipate what the other will need or how they will act and adjust without taking it personally -- ever since.
Walter worked not-that-happily in sales for a few years before Mary Jane reminded him how much he’d loved the adjunct teaching he’d done. He’s taught English and Journalism at Voorhees’ Eastern Regional High School for 21 years.
When their daughters, Madeline and Nancy, were growing up, Mary Jane worked part-time, coordinating her schedule with Walter’s so one of them could always be home with the girls. Nine years ago, with Walter’s encouragement, she, too, became a teacher. Two years ago, she joined the staff at Eastern, where she teaches Family Consumer Science.
Not that either of them is literally at Eastern right now. COVID-19 means they are teaching – and virtually everything else -- at home.
Mary Jane reminds herself that Walter actually does sometimes need to drop everything and go to the garden center right this minute, because he’s craving familiar human activities -- even if he and the other humans are 6 feet apart.
Walter tries to remember that when Mary Jane is worried about things beyond her control – like whether their daughters will return to college this fall, and how they will stay safe if they do – she needs to spend some time alone with her sewing machine before she can talk about it.
Eventually, as they always have, they come together to talk.
When the girls were little enough to have 7 p.m. bedtimes, the couple would tuck them in and then put on fancy clothes and light candles to eat Italian take-out on the good china for quality together time.
The girls, who returned home when their campuses closed, are now up later than their parents. “Sometimes, Mary Jane and I have to go to the CVS together just to have a private conversation,” Walter said.
Whatever it takes.
On June 10, Mary Jane and Walter will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, not with the planned trip to Ireland, and probably not with a vow-renewal and party in their Cherry Hill backyard. But with something spontaneous and wonderful and allowed under the changing COVID-19 rules, with their daughters.