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.
NOT MARRIED, YET
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
* 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.”
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, ...