The old photo surfaced last spring. Someone posted it on Facebook, which got Harding High School’s class of 1965 cyberchatting.
Who was that grinning kid with his arm around Joanna McGrath? Where was the picture taken? When?
As they reminisced about their teenage years in Charlotte, far-flung old friends reconnected. And discovered a future to celebrate.
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For many, New Year’s Day symbolizes reinvention. On Jan. 1, Joanna McGrath Reynolds plans to walk down a church aisle to pledge her love and fidelity to Dan Thompson, that boy in the picture.
They’ll start their new lives surrounded by family and friends, including old classmates whose step back in time launched this unexpected romance. They expect about 100 people to attend the wedding at a west Charlotte chapel. They intended a smaller ceremony but as people heard the story, the guest list grew.
“I think everybody is so excited that they’re happy because she’s so deserving of happiness,” said her sister, Mary McGrath Harris. “Everybody wants to be a part of this.”
“I am so happy for my brother to marry someone I know will make a good partner for the rest of his life,” said his sister, Carol Thompson Kinsley. “And I can’t wait to have Joanna as my sister.”
Kinsley deserves some credit for this union. Nearly 50 years ago, her brother Dan, then 14, tagged along to a Harding football game at Memorial Stadium with her and a group of her senior class friends. After the game, the group ended up at the Shoney’s restaurant on Morehead Street.
As someone snapped the picture, Dan, still in junior high, put his arm around Joanna – a bold move for a kid his age.
He remembers thinking she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. She thought he was cute, in a (cute) little brother sort of way.
Neither recalls having met before, or seeing each other after. That group of Harding teenagers moved on. And 50 years went by.
They got married and had children. They bought homes and built careers. Some never left Charlotte, others moved across the country and overseas. They lost classmates and friends in Vietnam. Now in their 60s, many are grandparents. Some retired comfortably; others struggle through a shaky economy.
The bride and groom have weathered their times.
After graduation, Joanna McGrath went to Salem College, moved back to Charlotte and became a teacher. She married Jim Reynolds, and they had a daughter, Katherine. They’d been married 30 years when Jim was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. Two months later, he was dead.
She spent the next five years as “a widow living with my memories.” She had her family and friends but never expected to fall in love again.
“She was so strong and coped so well and kept her chin up. I always thought, wouldn’t it be nice if she found someone she could lean on?” her sister said.
After Harding, Dan Thompson sold insurance, got married and had two children, Deanna and Devin. He is now a registered nurse living in Catawba, S.C.
Divorced in 1990 after almost two decades of marriage, he remarried twice, but neither lasted, and he’d been single for 10 years.
Then he saw the picture. “I thought, what a cute girl,” he said. “I was really taken by that picture.”
California resident Lyn Smith Sager, a friend of his sister and Joanna’s, had decided to post it and a bunch of her old pictures online to share with Harding classmates.
Loved blossomed quickly
Carol Thompson Kinsley sent it to her brother. Dan, 64, contacted Joanna through Facebook and asked if he could add the picture to a Harding reunion page.
She agreed, and the online conversations continued. They joked about their younger selves. They talked about the popular Harding reunions for 1960s graduates – a yearly tradition that draws hundreds to Myrtle Beach each October.
“My late husband made a great comment when we went to the 2004 one: ‘What are all my friends’ parents doing here?’ ” she wrote.
Thompson asked if they could have dinner together. They agreed to meet at the Open Kitchen, a Charlotte restaurant that’s been around since they were kids.
Remember I’m not a teenager anymore, she reminded him before their first meeting in June.
“She walked in and looked exactly like she did when she was 17,” he said. “It stunned me how beautiful she was. I was just smitten from the get-go.”
The next day, he made his intentions clear: “I was up ALL night thinking about you,” he told her in a text.
When Thompson talks about Reynolds, he sounds like a guy who’s won the lottery. “She’s so smart, so intelligent,” he said. “She understands my sense of humor, which a lot of people don’t. We laugh all the time.”
His daughter, Deanna Thompson Corby, 29, says Reynolds has been good for her dad – and she hasn’t felt that way about everyone he dated in the past.
“My dad is a big romantic; he’s got a good heart and a good soul; in my biased view, he’d be bachelor of the year,” she said.
“I liked Joanna right off the bat, she seems really down-to-earth ... very genuine. I think they will be happy.”
McGrath Reynolds, 67, says she started falling for Thompson from the first online chats.
“I love the way he expresses his thoughts. I love his sense of humor. He’s just wonderful in every way: his mind, his goals, his values. He’s so thoughtful and generous and giving. He’s just amazing.”
“The third time my daughter met Dan she said, ‘Mom, you ought to marry him.’ ”
Sealed at the reunion
The actual proposal took place during the reunion weekend in October. Thompson wanted to ask her to marry him in front of everyone gathered. Reunion organizers told him no, it could go bad.
After a series of foiled plans – he drove her to a scenic spot, got down on one knee and realized he’d forgotten the ring – he proposed privately in a room overlooking the ocean.
An old-fashioned guy at heart, he’d already asked her sister for permission. Both said yes.
The ceremony will take place at 2 p.m. The bride bought a new dress; the groom, a new suit. Family and friends, including close high school pal Julie Ritterskamp, have helped plan everything from guest lists to music. (Note to brides everywhere: You want these people on your team.)
Lyn Smith Sager will fly in from California; Carol Thompson Kinsley will trek south from Delaware.
“I’m so happy and so thrilled. I had to miss her first wedding because I couldn’t afford to travel,” Sager said. “I definitely don’t want to miss this one.”
After the ceremony and socializing, the couple plans to head to the Charleston area for a short honeymoon.
They anticipate a long life together. She’s converted him to healthy eating and cooking, something he didn’t do much of during his single years.
They have big plans: to travel to Europe to visit Paris and other cities. And little plans: to play board games and grocery-shop and enjoy their young grandchildren (each has two).
“It’s like we were meant to be together,” Thompson said. “I feel healthier than I’ve ever felt. Life is starting all over for me. It’s like I’m 14 again.”