By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
When Gregory Hutchings and Cheryl Carter locked eyes across the room in a Norfolk restaurant in 1999, neither could have imagined the incredible adventure the next 20 years would hold.
Gregory, now superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, was at the time a self-described super senior at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, while Cheryl was a recent William & Mary graduate working for PricewaterhouseCoopers. The two were in the restaurant Bennigan’s, Gregory with a group of fraternity brothers and Cheryl with her sister and some friends.
They agree there was an immediate connection.
“I kept seeing this woman across the room staring at me. And I was like, ‘Do I know her?’ And it was like an hour that we kept looking at each other,” Gregory said. “Not the whole time, but our eyes kept meeting.”
“He was staring at me,’” Cheryl countered. “I was like, ‘Why is this man staring at me?’”
Gregory realized after a while that the woman sitting next to Cheryl was someone he knew from college. Seeing his opening, he walked across the room and began talking with the friend.
“I was like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and ‘What’s your friend’s name?’” Gregory said. “She told me her name was Cheryl. Her sister happened to be with her at the dinner. And her sister asked me a thousand questions about who am I: What do I do? Do I live with my mom? Do I have a job?”
After getting the third degree from her sister, Gregory gave Cheryl his business card. Although still in school, he was an admissions counselor at Old Dominion.
“I was like, ‘Here’s my business card. Give me a call sometime.’ Because we didn’t have cell phones,” Gregory said. “And then Cheryl called me the next day and I didn’t answer the call, because I saw caller ID and I said, ‘I need her to think I’m busy.’ So I looked at the phone and let it go to voicemail and I called her the next day. And then we went on our first date and the rest literally was history.”
An immediate connection
Their first date was so memorable that they both saved mementos from it – souvenirs that they still have.
“Our first date, I knew she was going to be my wife. That was June 26, 1999,” Gregory said.
“And you went home and told your roommate,” Cheryl added.
“I went home and told my best friend Simon, he was my roommate as well and he was from Alexandria. I was like, ‘I just went on a date with my wife.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, right whatever.’ And my black book was gone after that. No more dates [with other women] for me. This is it,’” Gregory said.
Cheryl didn’t make such emphatic statements, but also felt the connection.
“I didn’t go home and say, ‘This is my husband’ but I think I loved Greg from the very beginning. I did,” Cheryl said.
Cheryl still has her dress from that first date, while Gregory kept the tablecloth they dined on.
“It was … paper and I wrote on it the date, our first date, and I drew this picture and it has spaghetti sauce on it, but I kept it,” Gregory said. “I forgot that I kept it, honestly, but I framed it for Mother’s Day or your birthday or something. And Cheryl, she actually kept her dress from the first date. That’s why it was meant to be. … It’s meaningful. I didn’t [keep a memento] for every date.”
They immediately felt at ease in each other’s company in a way that was special.
“I just liked talking to Greg,” Cheryl said. “A lot of dates when I went out with people, it didn’t inspire me to engage as much. I’m not always talkative. But when I’m with Greg, I … just like talking to him. I like being with him.”
“I think we just connected,” Gregory said. “I felt vulnerable, and I normally have a wall up for people. And for her I just felt like I was completely comfortable and I could talk with her about anything. There was no judgment. We just had that spark.
“Our first date lasted until like 3 in the morning. We talked, then we walked along the beach. Then we said, ‘It’s 3 a.m.! We’ve got to go to work tomorrow, so I’ll see you later.’ And I did not kiss her on the first date. … I think I tried to do everything right. And I wanted to do everything right,” he said.
Path to the altar
It wasn’t a direct line from that amazing first date to flowers and wedding cake. It took three years and a cancelled first wedding before Gregory and Cheryl were able to tie the knot.
Their main obstacle was where they were in their lives – just starting their professional careers. Because of those careers, they spent a fair amount of time apart in the beginning. Cheryl’s job in the tax department at PwC took her to Arizona on a regular basis.
Gregory said he dealt with the extended absences at first, but he decided he wanted to propose once he finished his ODU degree. He worked out an elaborate plan for a proposal in May 2000, with scattered rose petals and a messenger jar filled with a special message.
“So I made these little small scrolls, these little pieces of paper, and I wanted her to have to piece it together, because she likes puzzles,” he said. “So I had each letter on the scroll and I burned the edges and then I rolled each one up and put a little ribbon on it and put it into the little jar. … So when she came in I had these roses and she was like, ‘What is all this? What’s going on?’”
When Cheryl put together the puzzle, it read, “Will you marry me?”
“It was romantic,” Cheryl said. “I don’t like surprises, but that was a good surprise.”
Their path was not without some drama, both before and after the proposal.
Their first real fight came about six months after they began dating, at “The happiest place on Earth” – Disney World.
“It was because of the teacups,” Gregory said. “This is what started the whole argument. We’re on the teacups. … I’m like spinning the teacup. She’s like, ‘Stop spinning the teacup.’ And I’m like, ‘No, this is so fun!’ I was going faster and faster. And she was like, ‘Stop, stop, stop!’”
“He thought it was funny,” Cheryl said.
The fight began the second they exited the ride.
“She was like, ‘When I say stop, that means stop. That doesn’t mean keep going. And I don’t appreciate that you didn’t listen to what I said,’” he said.
The fight continued as they walked across the park and briefly got caught in the Remember the Magic Parade, which blocked their path out of the Magic Kingdom.
“Imagine that during your first big argument,” Gregory said.
They weathered the teacup argument, but a brief breakup months before their first wedding date almost ended the relationship.
“She was traveling all the time and by that time I was a teacher,” Gregory said. “So I was like, ‘OK, you’re in Arizona and I’m in the D.C. area, and I don’t get to see you. I just don’t think this is going to work. You’re too far away.’ … I was insecure. I was 23 at this time. I admit I was not expecting Cheryl to say, ‘OK.’”
They had just been about to mail wedding invitations and had made a deposit on the wedding venue. They had to call their families and tell them the wedding was off.
But the breakup proved to be short-lived: only about three weeks. Cheryl soon accepted a job back in D.C., which she said was motivated at least in part so they could be together. Once back together, they set a new wedding date of April 20, 2002.
Their wedding was a joyous occasion for the usual reasons – and some unexpected as well.
“We had a lot of stuff going on,” Gregory said. “Both of our grandparents passed away right before we got married. … So our wedding was good for all of our families, because it was something …”
“Positive,” Cheryl said.
“It brought our families together in a happy way,” he said.
The day was beautiful, but it rained briefly just before the ceremony. Cheryl initially was sad about the rain.
“And then someone told me that thing about, ‘A wet knot stays tied.’ And I was like, ‘OK, there we go.’ It was good that it rained a little bit and then the sun came out,” she said.
It wound up being a wet wedding day in more ways than one.
“I started crying at the wedding,” Gregory said. “The doors opened up and I looked up and said, ‘She’s so beautiful.’ And I started crying. Because I’d never seen her dressed up like that. I mean you don’t see people in a wedding dress.”
Gregory’s tears proved contagious. His mother started crying as soon as she saw his tears, followed by his sister, followed by his nine aunts.
“All my friends were like, ‘Get yourself together,’” he laughed.
The road to ACPS
After the wedding and honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, they lived in Northern Virginia, and Cheryl got her MBA from the regional Virginia Tech campus. They then moved to Richmond so Gregory could pursue his doctorate at William & Mary. Their journey included five years in Nashville, where Gregory was offered the post of assistant principal at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School, which was the top-ranked school in Tennessee.
They had their daughter, Micha, just before moving to Tennessee and their son, Gregory, just after moving back to Alexandria in 2010.
Three years later an opportunity came for Gregory to become superintendent of schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio, near Cleveland. Gregory and Cheryl weren’t sure about the location – neither likes the cold – but felt it was the right move.
Five years later, when the superintendent’s job came open in Alexandria, Gregory and Cheryl pondered and prayed for a long time before deciding to apply for the job.
“There was a lot of prayer that went into this position, because we were content,” Gregory said.
“We had no reason to leave Shaker Heights,” Cheryl said. “We had a nice life.”
But the lure of being close to family, of their children being able to attend the same schools Gregory had attended – and the challenges that would await him in Alexandria’s diverse school system – proved too much to resist.
The move back to Alexandria has also enabled Cheryl to start her own accounting firm.
“We’ve come full circle,” Gregory said. “Cheryl is now able to achieve her goals. And I know that she made sacrifices for my aspirations. … I know at times it was about me and my career. She stayed by my side the entire time, and continues to. That’s what love is supposed to be about. You’re supposed to go through good times and bad times. And you should learn from all of those different experiences.”