Randy Van Hooser, 52, is a big, barrel-chested guy who owns a Chattanooga taxi company.
Julie Patton, 46, is a server at a Brainerd sports bar.
The two have fallen crazy in love. They plan to get married on a date in November they picked to do a spin move around the best of the SEC football season.
I met Randy and Julie at one of the newspaper’s booths at the Formal Affair wedding expo at the Chattanooga Convention Center last week. I was handing out fact sheets on how to place a wedding announcement in the newspaper when Randy walked up.
“Hey, I’ve got a story for you,” he announced proudly.
At first I thought he was the beaming father of a bride, but then Julie arrived at his side. She hugged his right arm tightly and lifted her shoulders — the universal body language of female bliss.
Randy and I swapped business cards. On Tuesday the two came to visit me in the newsroom to share their story, which, amazingly, goes back about 20 years.
“The first time we met, he literally swept me off my feet,” Julie explained.
Back in the early 1990s when the line dancing craze was going strong, Julie and her girlfriends would make the rounds to the city’s best Western dance clubs.
One night at Cactus Moon, a popular boot-scooting nightspot in what was then Eastgate Mall, Julie approached Randy — a guy hired by the club to line-dance with female customers — with a very specific request. She was about to have surgery the next day, she said, but first she wanted Randy to flip her. She requested an athletic Western dance move called the Sweetheart Schottische.
“But you better not drop me,” she warned.
“I’ve never dropped a woman yet,” said Randy, a former high school football star who turned down scholarship offers from SEC schools.
After the dance, the two parted ways and never crossed paths again for 20 years. But there was something there, a spark worth remembering.
Then, last year, Randy started unwinding from the taxi business at Bud’s Sports Bar in Brainerd, where Julie has worked for years.
She spotted him immediately.
“Well, Randy Van Hooser!” she said one day as he sat at the bar.
He remembered her, too — at least her smile, if not her name.
Soon, they began to form a friendship. Julie got nervous (in a good way) when Randy arrived for his meals at Bud’s. She could feel her face flush, and she’d look over her shoulder to see if he was looking in her direction.
Meanwhile, Randy began to flirt a little and even asked her out once or twice.
But even though she was attracted to Randy, Julie had built up layers of defenses when it came to dating customers. It’s a server thing. She didn’t jump at his first invitation, or the second.
Randy had been divorced for more than 20 years, and Julie has never been married. Interestingly, leading up to their first date, both had said a little prayer asking God to help them find someone special.
For Randy, his new taxi company had begun to find his footing, and he realized that all the years he had spent driving a truck for a stock-car racing team and driving a cab had filled up his time but not his heart.
For several years, Julie had focused on buying her own home. After she got settled in, though, she realized she wanted more out of life. Even in her mid-40s she had never given up on love.
“I used to tell people my future husband is out there on the highway going in the opposite direction,” she says now.
On the night of their first fancy date, Randy arranged for a limousine to pick them up for a night of dancing. Soon, the went on a cruise together with Randy’s extended family, and another time they went on a weekend getaway to Gatlinburg.
Everywhere they go, they dance — at car washes, in parking lots, even on street crossings.
With all the hardships middle-class Americas have endured in the last decade, it’s easy for our hearts to harden.
Then you see Randy and Julie together, and you realize that love really can conquer all — if we are patient and hopeful and say a little prayer once in a while.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MarkKennedyTFP or on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST.
Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...