A Love Worth Waiting For
Stu Shapiro ’75 and Debbie Fersh Shapiro ’73 celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in May. But what makes their love story truly extraordinary is how long it took them to get together in the first place. Though Stu knew who Debbie was when they were students at IC, they didn’t go on their first date until many years after they’d graduated. All it took was time, some courage, and a cocktail napkin.
I’ve Got a Crush on You
Stu saw Debbie for the first time at a fraternity mixer at his dorm in Terrace 10. She was in the sister sorority to his fraternity, and after some snooping he discovered that she was dating his pledgemaster. Stu started noticing Debbie around campus, and he became more and more attracted to her.
“She was always surrounded by laughing people. She was popular and funny, but I never had the courage to ask her out,” Stu said.
Although it was love at first sight for Stu, Debbie hadn’t noticed him.
“If he had asked me out then I probably would have said no, because he was two years younger, and at the time that would have been weird,” she said.
A Number on a Napkin
After graduating, Debbie moved to California to work in television production, and Stu went to graduate school for journalism at Boston University. Their stars wouldn’t start to align for another decade, but they both kept in touch with college friends and were involved in alumni events.
In 1983, Stu met Beth Fedirko Greenberg ’73 when they volunteered at an Ithaca College phonathon in New York City, a major stroke of luck.
“I asked her out, and during the date it came out that she had been Debbie’s college roommate and very close friend,” said Stu. “I couldn’t disguise that I had always had a big crush on her.”
“I was very excited, I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to call her. I’m going to call her.’”
Beth wrote Debbie’s phone number on a napkin and told Stu she was single and living in California. He carried the napkin in his wallet for the next five years, telling himself that he would contact her and confess his feelings.
“I was very excited,” he said. “And I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to call her. I’m going to call her.’ But I never had the nerve.”
Meanwhile, as any good friend would do, Beth told Debbie that she had given her number to someone. Debbie looked Stu up in her yearbook but couldn’t place him.
“I noticed he was cute, but I never really thought about it after that,” she said.
It wasn’t until 1988 that Stu and Debbie were together in Ithaca again. He was in town for an alumni board meeting, and she was visiting for Alumni Weekend. Debbie was hesitant to go at first, because she felt strange being the only single woman among her married friends, but she decided to go at the last minute—a decision that would change her life.
"This is your last shot. She's walking off into the sunset, and you'll never see her again."
On Friday, Stu was walking back from dinner with a friend when he heard music coming from the Campus Center. He decided to peek in, and he spotted someone he had been longing to see for the past 15 years.
“I opened the door, and I immediately saw her. I turned to my friend and said, ‘I have to do this, I have to go in there,’” he remembered.
It was Stu’s big moment, the chance he had been dreaming about. He introduced himself to Debbie, walked away ... and didn’t talk to her for the rest of the weekend. It wasn’t until Sunday morning, when Beth saw Stu and told him Debbie was packing her things to go back to California, that he realized it was really his last chance to ask her out.
“Her roommate walked up to me and said, ‘This is your last shot. She’s walking off into the sunset, and you’ll never see her again.’”
Stu did the only thing left to do: he sprinted across the quad to the Garden Apartment Debbie was staying in and breathlessly told her he was going to be in California on business. It was the first lie he could think of. Debbie gave him her card, and they made tentative plans to meet up.
A month later, Stu left Debbie a phone message. She didn’t call him back right away, but luckily Stu had left an 800 number for her.
At that time, phone calls were really expensive, so I thought, ‘Well, as long as it’s a toll-free number, I guess I’ll call him back,’” she said.
"I hung up and thought, 'What did I just do?'"
What could have been an awkward phone call turned out to be a two-hour long conversation where they shared their common experiences and talked about how much they loved Ithaca. Debbie suggested they meet in San Francisco and spend a few days in Napa, and Stu planned to fly out in three weeks. But Debbie still wasn’t convinced that there was a love connection.
“I hung up and thought, ‘What did I just do?’” she said.
Still, Debbie trusted Stu because of the Ithaca connection they shared, and they talked on the phone nearly every day until their trip. Stu slowly began to win Debbie over with romantic gestures. Debbie mentioned she liked to dance, so Stu took dancing lessons from a friend to make sure he could keep up with her on their trip. During one phone call, Debbie admitted it was her birthday; later that day she found a big bouquet of lilies and a book about the California wine country on her doorstep.
The night before his flight to California, Stu had Chinese food for dinner. He got a fortune he had never seen before or since: “Travel and romance go together now.” The couple still has the fortune in their scrapbook.
A Dream Date
Finally, after years of waiting, Stu arrived in San Francisco and got to go on a date with the woman of his dreams. Their trip went off without a hitch, and Debbie realized what she had been missing.
“He was just so funny, and we had a lot in common,” she said. “And when he sat down at a piano one night and played, by ear, a Johnny Mathis song that had always reminded him of me, that did it. I melted.”
“We connected immediately,” Stu said. “By the end of the weekend we just didn’t want to leave each other.”
But Stu had to fly back to Florida. The new couple stayed in touch with daily phone calls and romantic greeting cards. They managed to meet again a couple of times, and even though they’d only spent a total of 10 days together in person, they knew something magical was happening.
Stu asked Debbie to come to Florida for Christmas that year. When Debbie arrived, he invited her to take a bath and settle in. He gave her a monogrammed bathrobe as a holiday present. Stu waited patiently until, finally, Debbie noticed something unusual on the robe.
“The monogram was DSF, with a big S in the middle,” she says. “And I thought, ‘That’s not the right letters.’ And then it dawned on me that this would be my married monogram.”
Stu proposed. Debbie said yes, and they got married five months later in May. Of course, they had an Ithaca College-themed cake topper and invited all their college friends to the wedding.
In the 25 years they’ve been married, Stu and Debbie have traveled the world together, but something keeps pulling them back to Ithaca: they plan to spend summers in their college town after they retire. Their connection to Ithaca College is what helped their love blossom, what made Stu take a chance on his college crush, and what made Debbie say yes to a sweaty guy who had just run across the quad for her.
“It’s almost like when people grow up together. It’s something you can never take away,” said Stu. “So even though we don’t have shared experiences with each other at Ithaca College, we had the shared experience of four years there and both understanding what it means to us.”
Debbie Shapiro ‘73 won a 2014 Alumni Award for her volunteer service. See who else won.