By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
No one expects to meet the love of their life in a Safeway at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday.
But when Witney Schneidman and Lee Guerry started chatting in the grocery store in 2006, they had no idea where that initial conversation would take them.
Schneidman, a specialist in African studies who now leads the Africa practice at law firm Covington and Burling, had just gotten back from a Botswana National Day reception in D.C. His daughter, Ellie, was returning from boarding school the next day and he was in Safeway, stocking up on soda and snacks, when he noticed a woman, Guerry, coming down the sparkling water aisle toward him.
The first thing he noticed was her cart, which was packed and almost overflowing. The next thing he noticed was a complete surprise.
“I saw was that she was wearing this sweatshirt that said ‘Nonquitt’ on it,” Schneidman said. “Now, nobody in Virginia or pretty much any- where else has heard of Nonquitt, but that’s this little community from Massachusetts.”
Schneidman and his two kids, Sam and Ellie, had been renting a cottage in Nonquitt almost every summer. The world being small and Schneidman being an extrovert, he sparked up a conversation.
“I stopped and said, ‘Oh, do you go to Nonquitt?’” Schneidman said. “And she said, ‘Yes, I do. Where do you stay? Which house do you rent?’ [I said,] ‘Well, we stay in the Strohmeier cottage’ And she said, ‘So do we!’ And it turns out my family had been renting it in July and her family had been renting it in August.”
The connections didn’t stop there. Schneidman and Guerry quickly learned that they had been going to the same church, Christ Church in Old Town, for more than 20 years and that Guerry was an alumna of Sewanee, the same university Schneidman’s son, Sam, attended.
“It kind of seemed meant to be,” Guerry, a lawyer who went into real estate 15 years ago, said. “It was amazing having so many things in common.”
“That sort of sparked the conversation that we’ve been having ever since,” Schneidman said.
Both being extroverts, over the next few hours Schneidman and Guerry continued to chat and follow each other around the grocery store.
Guerry said she was so engaged in the conversation that she followed Schneidman into the express check-out lane with her cartload of items and didn’t realize her mistake because they were still chatting away.
Guerry couldn’t wait to spend more time with the charming, funny, smiling man she had met in the grocery store, she said, so she invited him to the party she was having the next day.
“I really wanted to know if he was single, so I’d heard about his son and I’d heard about his daughter, hadn’t heard about a wife, but then I said, ‘What’s your wife’s name? You should bring her to the party,’” Guerry said. “He said, ‘Oh, I’m single.’ I said, ‘Oh, then you should really come to the party.’”
Although Schneidman was unable to make it to the party, over the next week, Schneidman and Guerry would go on three dates, each better than the last.
“After that, we were together every day,” Guerry said.
Looking back on their first encounter, Schneidman and Guerry said they realized just how much of it came down to being in the right place at the right time. Guerry was only in Safeway that late because she had been on an extended phone call with a friend before she got there. Schneidman had just returned from his event and had only recently officially gotten divorced after being separated for a few years.
Over the couple of years before they got married, Schneidman and Guerry got a dog – a poodle named Abbey – and traveled the world together. On Nov. 15, 2008, after a canal-side proposal in Venice, Guerry and Schneidman were married in Christ Church, with the ensuing festivities held at The Mayflower Hotel in D.C.
The wedding was a pure celebration, the kind of party one would expect a pair of extroverts to throw.
“A lot of my friends have said, ‘You need to get married again’ because it was so much fun that we need to do it again,” Guerry said.
Around 260 people attended, including the nine groomsmen and nine bridesmaids. The music was lively and central to the party. Schneidman, who has been playing guitar since he was 11 years old, brought out his six string to play The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” alongside the wedding band. Guerry, who has been taking dance classes at Joy of Motion for years, worked with a choreographer to work out the couple’s first dance, which was set to Etta James’ “At Last.”
Even before marrying, Schneidman and Guerry had established the elements that would define their relationship and keep it healthy for more than a decade: family, travel and music.
Guerry took to Schneidman’s kids quickly, and within a year, all four of them took a trip to South Africa.
Travel is central to Schneidman’s job, formerly as deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs and now with the law firm, and the couple has travelled across the globe for both work and pleasure.
“One thing I think [is key] is making a priority of spending time together,” Guerry said. “… We do a lot together. We make a point of doing things together, taking almost all our vacation time together.”
Finding the right travel companion isn’t always the same as finding the right spouse, but, fortunately, Schneidman and Guerry said they complement each other well on the road.
They laugh at each other’s jokes – Guerry said she has always loved Schneidman’s sense of humor – and can still talk for hours.
Guerry is curious and interested in learning new things. Meanwhile, Schneidman, the more experienced traveler, is just as curious and even more eager to share the places and people he’s met from his journeys.
“I like our travel together because, one, Lee’s a good traveler, but, more than that, I like showing her my life,” Schneidman said. “… For her to see what I do, where I go, where I stay, it was thrilling to be able to share that with somebody.”
Guerry isn’t always able to accompany Schneidman on his business trips. She has her full-time job as an associate at Sotheby’s International Realty and sometimes the trips are just too short to be worth it. That much time apart can be difficult for some couples, but Guerry and Schneidman have found a way to make it work.
“She just, frankly, supports me in a really positive way,” Schneidman said. “I travel a lot, and she’s just incredibly supportive of what I want to do, what I do do and it’s just really wonderful.”
“People do say, ‘What do you do when he’s gone for so long?’” Guerry added. “I was single for so long – I’m good at entertaining myself. It’s not hard.”
The Schneidman-Guerry home is like a museum, full of an intriguing mix of contemporary and traditional art from local and international artists that they have collected on their travels. Photos in the study show Schneidman shaking hands with Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.
There’s also a collection of guitars that are regularly played. Schneidman is teaching his son to play, and, together with members of Guerry’s family, he formed a family band, Folk the House.
“Music’s so important. It’s a big part of what we do,” Schneidman said.
The band puts on open mic concerts in a barn in Nonquitt where crowds of up to 200 people gather to hear a combination of original and cover songs. “The Diamond of Del Ray” is a particular hit with crowds. Although Guerry doesn’t play an instrument herself, she’s been known to occasionally help out on percussion and even give out percussion instruments to the crowd.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing both Schneidman and Guerry to work from home, they’re spending more time together than ever. They’ve had to put a stop to their international travel plans and it’s more difficult to see family. But the things that have kept their relationship fresh over the last decade – humor, curiosity, passion – are still there, regardless of the world outside their door.
The conversation that started in a Safeway 14 years ago is still ongoing.