By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Life is about the moments that happen in between the best laid plans.
When Donna Cramer met her neighbor, John Woods, in 1987, she was married to her now late husband and Woods was just the new neighbor. Woods had moved into a house on Trinity Drive with his now ex-wife that abutted Cramer’s Coventry Lane home which sat at the end of a dead end. Their kids played together, and they occasionally spoke about neighborhood gossip and local politics but not much more.
A decade later, circumstances changed. Cramer’s husband had passed away, and Woods and his wife had divorced, although they managed to remain friends. Cramer had moved into Old Town and had not seen her former neighbor in a few months when they ran into each other at T.C. Williams High School’s Back to School Night in 1998. Cramer’s daughter was a senior and Woods’ son a sophomore, yet their children shared a class: physical education. Cramer and Woods, along with the other parents, listened to the PE teacher’s presentation that night.
“When we walked out of that class, John said, ‘Would you like to go out for dinner sometime, get caught up on the neighborhood gossip?’ And I said, ‘Sure, that’d be fine,’” Cramer said. “Well, I never heard from him.”
A couple of months later, Cramer, a realtor for McEnearney Associates, needed an environmental engineer for a listing she was working on. Knowing Woods had co-founded his own engineering firm, Peacock Engineering Consultants, she called Woods to see if he had any environmental engineers on staff. Woods recommended a few engineers – and also apologized for not following up to make dinner plans.
Within a week, the two star-crossed neighbors were eating dinner together at a Mexican restaurant in Del Ray – although the circumstances were far from romantic.
After Thanksgiving of 1998, Woods had driven back from his family home in South Carolina and needed to drop off his rental car. He was on the phone with Cramer and on his way to drop off his rental car when he asked if Cramer could give him a ride home in exchange for dinner in Del Ray.
“In all honesty, I had no romantic intentions with Donna at this particular time. … I was sort of interested in talking about the kids that had been in the neighborhood, her real estate business and things in the city and some political stuff,” Woods said. “I really wasn’t looking for anybody. I was a single dad. I was a principal in my engineering firm and didn’t necessarily have time to have a relationship.”
Although he went in with no interest in a relationship, Woods left dinner having secured a technically second, sort-of-first date. But after a few more dates, Cramer said she was still on the fence. Fortunately, Cramer’s daughter, Claire, who was 17 at the time, intervened and convinced Cramer to continue going out with Woods.
“She’s really one of the reasons we ended up getting together because I came in from a date with John one night and she said, ‘So, how was it?’ I said, ‘We had a really good time, and I don’t think I’m going to date him anymore,’” Cramer said.
For Cramer, Woods’ younger children, who were 14 and 11 at the time, were a sticking point. Cramer said her first rule of dating had been to not get into a serious relationship with a man who had younger children.
“[Claire] said, ‘I think you ought to get over that. It’s not like they’re tiny tots. They’ve even played in our yard with our dog.’ John has considered Claire his patron saint to some degree,” Cramer chuckled.
Woods also had his own insecurities when it came to dating Cramer.
“I really had thought from the day we started going out that I really was not in the class that her late husband was in,” Woods said. “I was just a hayseed from South Carolina who grew up with reasonably good manners and some style. … I was not nearly the sophisticated economist that her late husband was, and I knew they went to operas and other classical music programs at the Kennedy Center.”
Claire would come to the rescue again after Woods asked Cramer out to celebrate her birthday. Cramer was dating somebody else at the time who was admittedly more similar to her late husband. She told Woods that she would get back to him in a few days.
“I mentioned that to Claire, and Claire said, ‘Mom, he’s asking to take you out for your birthday. He’s not asking you to marry him. And might I remind you that other guy you’re dating has not asked you out for your birthday.’ For a 17-year-old, she was pretty with it,” Cramer said.
In the end, Cramer accepted Woods’ offer, and they went to dinner at L’Auberge Chez Francois, a French restaurant in Great Falls, Virginia. Cramer described that evening as “one of those magical nights where everything just sort of came together.” They talked all night, had delicious food and wine and planted the seeds of what would eventually blossom into a 19-year marriage.
Though they had each been married to long-term partners, together Woods and Cramer found love, stability and comfort that they had not experienced in their past relationships.
For Cramer, Woods was a welcome contrast to her late husband, Norman, who she described as “a very uptight personality,” in contrast to Woods’ laid back presence. It also helped that Woods connected with her family almost immediately.
“Though they were always nice with Norman, I always knew they weren’t comfortable with Norman. Whereas my siblings just fell into [John],” Cramer said. “They were very happy to have someone more like them around. So, family gatherings were more fun with John around.”
For Woods, Cramer’s independence was appealing and comforting. Although he is now retired, Woods’ job used to take him all over the world. Knowing he could travel for a few days and that Cramer would be fine on her own, whether she came with him on his trip or not, has been a boon for their relationship. They’ve learned to value not only the time they spend together but the value of alone time and pursuing their own interests.
“I think the thing that appealed to me, and still does, is she did not need me [in order] to be successful,” Woods said. “She was independent, she had been a very successful real estate agent and raised two daughters.”
That independence came with time, Cramer said. Both Woods and Cramer admitted that age and their past relationships proved helpful as they embarked on their journey together. They were more confident in who they were and what they needed.
“I had a better idea of where I was in life and what confidence I had at 55 that I did not have at 29,” Cramer said. “… Though we are very happily married, we are also very independent of each other in terms of really managing our lives. I was not that way in my previous marriage. It was definitely he [who] ran the show, and I had to work my way through all of that.”
Woods acknowledged that his first marriage was a learning experience, one where he came to understand more about himself and the responsibilities that he needed to take on as a partner.
“I grew up in a household where my dad was the breadwinner and my mother ran the house and did everything, and I sort of adopted that culture, which did not work in my marriage,” Woods said. “She really wanted [me] to be much more involved with the children, and I should’ve been. I knew the mistakes that I had made.”
After dating for about five years, Woods decided to propose to Cramer during a trip to San Francisco. Woods had planned a day trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea, a beachside town, and had the ideal proposal ready in his head.
“My goal was to get up there around 5 o’clock in the afternoon and be having a drink out on the balcony [of the hotel] and watch the sunset over the Pacific,” Woods said.
According to Woods, he spent just as much time trying to outsmart his soon-to-be fiancé as he did planning the proposal itself. Fortunately, his hard work paid off, and Cramer said she had no idea that he planned to propose to her. The stars aligned, and Woods was able to pop the question with the Pacific Ocean waves crashing and sun setting in the background.
When it came to wedding planning, Woods and Cramer agreed that they wanted to throw a big celebration. About 350 ended up attending their wedding reception at Belle Haven Country Club in 2003. Woods’ son served as his best man.
“We had a blowout wedding. For a couple of old geezers, we really did a big wedding,” Cramer said.
For months afterward, Cramer and Woods had guests complimenting them on their fun wedding. Cramer also managed to make it into a family affair, looping in a relative to help with the flower arrangements and even recruiting her son-in-law, a jazz saxophonist, to play along with the band during the first dance.
“It was just a big, fun event. We actually got thank you notes from people thanking us because it was so much fun,” Cramer said.
After the wedding, Woods and Cramer enjoyed an eight-day honeymoon in the West Indies, one of many trips they’ve taken together since getting married. After being married for 19 years, travel and Friday night date nights help keep the spark alive, but Woods and Cramer said the foundation of their relationship is compromise and communication.
“I still like opera and symphony, I still listen to a lot of classical music, but I also go with John to country music events, back to the Citadel for sporting events,” Cramer said. “… I think it’s really important that we’re willing to do what the other person wants to do some of the time.”
“I would much rather do my second or third choice than argue about the first choice. When she says I’m laid back, I’m a consensus builder,” Woods said. “I don’t necessarily like to get in a fight. I can say in all these years, we have disagreements, but we do not fight.”