published Sunday, July 25th, 2010

Lee College: Marry Me U?

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    Staff Photo by Laura-Chase McGehee/Chattanooga Times Free Press Mary Beth Gray and fiance Nathan Torgerson share a frosty at The Spot- a landmark restaurant in Cleveland and for Lee University Students. Nathan proposed to his girlfriend, Mart Beth, their junior year at Lee University. Their engagement is one of many at the college known for helping women and men find their soul mates while they are working toward a degree.

Nathan Torgerson knew it would be Mary Beth Gray forever and always on the first day of his freshman year at Lee University.

He looked up from his desk and there she was, a small-framed communication major, 18, with chocolate-colored hair and blocky bangs. He watched her, asked around about her.

“She was always late to class,” he said. “And I thought she was gorgeous.”

A few weeks later, he gathered enough courage to ask her to drink a cup of coffee with him in one of the back corners of the campus student center after class. That’s where they discovered their mutual love of singing. Feelings escalated — fast.

By the time the two returned from Christmas break freshman year, they were official. Nine months later, Nathan, a sophomore, took Mary Beth to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and proposed with a small ring they had chosen together and intended to pay for in 12 months, no interest.

“It was perfect!” he said. “It was awesome!”

Back at school, news spread that Nathan and Mary Beth’s relationship status on Facebook had switched from “in a relationship” to “engaged.”

Another “ring before spring” at Lee, people snickered. Classic.

“We’ve ended up being that Lee couple,” he said.

Not everyone finds a soulmate at Lee University, the Church of God-affiliated liberal arts campus in Cleveland, Tenn., and there’s no way to know how many people meet and marry in a May rush post-graduation. Only 1 percent of the campus undergraduate population under age 25 is married, but that doesn’t account for engagements between students, which aren’t hard to find.

By their junior year many students are paired off, preparing to marry young and buck a national trend toward delaying marriage.

“If I don’t meet the good Christian girl or guy now, I won’t meet them later. You don’t want to end up being 30 (and unmarried),” said Richard Yeakley, a Lee student. “It’s God’s choice for you to have babies, good Christian babies. That is what a lot of people have been told.”

Students at state schools have a different view, he said.

“What they view as making their life important and matter is getting a job, researching a disease. It’s easier for them to not worry about marriage so much,” Mr. Yeakley said.

The hype at Lee starts with admissions. On Lee Day, skits expose prospective students to campus life and the longstanding mythology of Lee-sparked romance.

Look at whom you stand next to in line to register for classes, joke students and staff, because you’ve probably just spotted your spouse.

Watch whom you walk under the clock tower with, because you’ll probably end up marrying him or her.

If you’re caught taking photos with someone in front of the campus’ new water fountain, you might as well start picking out your china pattern.

“People say that if a girl is not engaged by her senior year her tuition is free,” said Benjamin Wooten, a 20-year-old music major at Lee who has a serious girlfriend but isn’t engaged. “A girl seriously asked about that one time in chapel, and the answer was no.”

And if the clock tower, the fountain or the registration line don’t get you, there are people willing to offer a nudge. Lee President Paul Conn, who has directed the school for more than 20 years, is notorious for matchmaking.

Once a semester, he holds Ask the President sessions at which students turn in hundreds of questions. Usually several will be from lonely students who haven’t found anybody or have never been on a date, asking for help.


Total undergraduate population 3,498

Number married 149

Percent married 4

Total undergraduate population under 25 3,238

Number married 41

Percent married 1

Source: Lee University

Fast Facts

* Married housing at Lee, a 50-apartment complex, has been full for more than 20 years.

* The average age of first marriage in the U.S. is 25.1 for women and 26.8 for men.

“Who is the person who wrote this?” Dr. Conn will say. Someone will stand to roaring laughter.

“Come up here. Now are there any girls in here that would want to go on a date with this guy?” he says. Women scream.

Students pour into chapel to watch these semi-embarrassed students find hope. They eat it up, students say.

“He’ll hand them $30, enough for a dinner and a movie,” Mr. Torgerson said.

Then there’s LeeHarmony, mimicking the popular online dating site eHarmony. The website, started by Lee students this year, already is 80 members strong.

The site’s mission: “We here at LeeHarmony believe the students at Lee University deserve a place to connect with other Christian singles attending.”

Dr. Conn, who met his own wife, Darlia, while they were students at Lee, doesn’t think the university is known as a marriage factory, and he certainly doesn’t believe it’s an outlier among Christian colleges. But if there was a phenomenon, he wouldn’t mind it.

Married Lee students are committed to the university, he said. It’s where they met, had their first kiss and starting planning a life together.

“It’s so much easier to get them to come back to homecoming and events because they both have the same experiences,” Dr. Conn said. “They participated in this very intense, small, rich culture. ... They say, ‘Let’s go back together.’ That’s the optimal model. And the legacy enrollment ... it feeds on itself.”

Still, some single students at Lee don’t want to hear about it. They don’t want to know their chances for meeting someone are better than average. And they aren’t interested in being sucked into the ring-before-spring frenzy.

Mr. Yeakley, a senior and proud single, said it can be hard to get to know women at Lee without a certain amount of pressure. He’s stopped telling his guy friends about dates. There are always a million questions that he’s not ready to answer.

“I am not going on dates to meet my wife,” he said. “I want to get to know people better and get to know humans better. I am not getting married yet, and you can stop joking about it.”

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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dryan said...

Lee College? Seriously. It's been 15 years.

I'm not sure what a sole mate is either. Did they connect over shoes or a fish filet?

The best part of this article is the sidebar with actual stats showing how this article is just meaningless. Do you guys use manatees with idea balls to decide your leads?

July 25, 2010 at 3:28 a.m.
enufisenuf said...

Their engagement is one of many at the college known for helping women and men find their sole mates while they are working toward a degree.IN BRAIN WASHING AND CULT WORSHIP

July 25, 2010 at 8:37 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

Seems rather young to be pressured into marrying. Is this how conservative Christians discourage pre-marital sex? Marry young? I married at 22 and was not really old enough. I made it work, but I think waiting is better. Especially for men.

July 25, 2010 at 1:01 p.m.
deltenney said...

Best wishes and congratulations to this little couple. Their approach to marriage is as good or better than most. The posted negative comments are uncalled for and unhelpful. Negative, derogatory remarks are unwarranted.

July 25, 2010 at 5:38 p.m.
beckyj said...

When I had my first dorm meeting at Bryan College (another Christian college across the river from Lee), I was handed a "Huston Hall Husband Hunter" membership card. Yep, I was one of those along with alot of other "card carrying members" that found our spouses while at school. My husband and I got married before our senior year and next month we will be celebrating out 31st wedding anniversary. I wouldn't have had it any other way :)

July 25, 2010 at 5:57 p.m.
enufisenuf said...

yea deltenny, lets ban whatever you don't like so your little world is perfect. Thin skinned people never like to hear anything that challenges reality.

July 25, 2010 at 6:09 p.m.
altavista said...

Why is this on the front page? Pure puff.

July 25, 2010 at 9:58 p.m.
lkeithlu said...

Congratulations, beckyj. I'm glad it worked for you. I still think it's problematic that the institution promotes this. I also find it a throw-back to women in my day being accused of seeking an MRS degree, and our academic aspirations not being taken seriously as a result. I also feel that the vast majority of men at this age are not ready for commitment.

July 26, 2010 at 9:25 a.m.
Iheartpr said...

As an admissions rep working in the Lee UNIVERSITY (not college) Admissions Office. Here are my few words of insider knowledge. As an alum and full-time employee I've been able to observe the workings of this institution both as a student and staffer. Do people meet, fall in love and get married, yes. We are a small private school and the community on campus is very close-knit. So meeting someone is bound to happen. Being that we are a small private Christian university we also attract many people with similar beliefs and values. Personally, I am looking for someone who believes similarly to what I believe which isn't odd or crazy. It's smart. Give me a man who prays, is good to his family and believes in something bigger than himself. Give me a man who believes in Jesus!

Also, our enrollment last fall 2009 was 4262 so the figures listed above are not accurate. It’s true at Lee Day during our “Life at Lee” skit we poke fun at many aspects of the Lee University Life. Lee Day 2009 the students poked fun at one of our very tall music professors calling him “Plate-a-souras-rex”. It’s all in good humor and fun… like an inside joke. This also extends to our joking regarding getting married/MRS degrees/registration lines/clock towers…etc. We all know what it means because this is our school, our home so we get the inside jokes. Think of it as Lee - Saturday Night Live.

I know to non-Lee affiliates our joking on such matters must seem “old school” and “sexist”. Don’t worry we have plenty of students who graduate both married and unmarried go on to successful careers. So, please don’t think all women who attend Lee end up poor little pregnant housewives barefoot in the kitchen. I think most would agree that Lee is a great place to find a mate but it's much more. Mainly, Lee University is a great place to grow into an adult, get an excellent education and build lasting relationships.

Again, I think people who meet their spouse here at Lee really are fortunate to find someone who probably holds the same morals and values they do. I DID find my soon-to-be husband here at Lee but we graduated over 2 years ago. He is a wonderful man, great Christian and exactly the kind of person I want to spend my life with. So I guess we don’t fit into the stereotype of “ring before spring”. This article is all stereotypes and nothing more. Want facts come for a visit, talk to our professors, talk to the students and see the heart of this place.

July 27, 2010 at 4:43 p.m.
lkeithlu said...

Thanks for the clarification, Iheartpr. As a female scientist and educator, I find that encouraging.

July 27, 2010 at 9:57 p.m.
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