- On July 24, 2017
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By Laura Stassi
When doctors told Susie the melanoma she thought she’d conquered the previous year had returned and she had only weeks to live, Susie had a talk with Harry, her husband of 40 years.
“She said I needed to go out and find another wife because I wasn’t the type to live by myself,” said Harry, now 75.
Not that Harry needed taking care of. “I cook, I do laundry, I sew, I clean house,” he said. “There aren’t that many men my age who can say that. But Susie knew I’d be lonely and would want somebody to share my life with.”
Susie died in October 2012; three months later, Harry dipped his toes back into the dating pool. Like the engineer he is, he proceeded analytically and deliberately. “I made a whole new life for myself,” Harry said.
Fort Wayne, Indiana, native Harry had gotten married for the first time at age 20. Seven years and three children later, they got divorced and Harry was awarded sole custody of the kids. “There were no attorneys in town who had ever heard of such a situation,” Harry said.
He met Susie at a Fort Wayne ski club, and they had a daughter together after getting married in the early 1970s. When Harry retired from his engineering career in 2008, the couple thought they’d have plenty of time together to travel and spend time with their grandchildren. But cancer abruptly ended their shared future.
Harry said his three oldest children were supportive of him dating, but the daughter Harry had with Susie thought he was moving too fast.
“She’d been very close to her mom, and it was a big loss,” Harry said. “I understood that but my attitude was, life can be taken away so quickly. I don’t know how much more time I get. Maybe it’s one year, maybe it’s 10 years. I’m not going to just watch the grass grow.”
Through a widower support group, Harry learned about online dating. “I’m not really a computer guy,” Harry said, but he went to Match.com and familiarized himself with how the site worked before committing to a paid membership, creating a user profile, and starting his search.
“I was really just trying to get my feet wet and get used to the idea of dating,” he said. “I wasn’t in any hurry for a serious relationship. I went in it with the attitude of, I’m going to meet women casually and turn this into a positive experience.”
What kind of woman was Harry looking for?
“I’m an engineer, so I’m usually very specific about things,” Harry said. “But you can’t be too specific. So I just set some general guidelines. I wanted a woman who was my age or younger, but no more than 10 years younger. I’m only 5-6, so I wanted a woman who was my height or shorter. And I didn’t want a woman who was emotionally or financially needy. I knew that I was kind of a walking target, being retired and financially in good shape.”
“I’m a healthy, high-energy guy, and I wanted someone who could keep up with me,” he said. “And I wanted someone who was a good traveler because I wanted to go places and do things.”
Harry’s married friends, fascinated with the process, asked him what color hair he preferred. “I told them blonde or brunette, but gray was out,” Harry said, chuckling, “and that took them aback because their wives all had gray hair. Actually, I did date a couple of women who had beautiful gray hair.”
Harry said online dating is “a great way to screen people. But then you have to be bold enough to go out and meet them.” He had a plan for that, too. He’d check out photos and profiles and email several women at a time. If they responded, Harry would email again and wait for another response before asking if they wanted to chat on the telephone. If that went well, he’d suggest meeting in person.
“I always made a point to let the woman decide where and when to meet so she’d feel most comfortable,” he said.
The first meeting was usually casual — maybe a cup of coffee. If that went well, the next date would be dinner or a movie, or even a play. And though Harry describes himself as “slightly introverted,” he said dating got easier because he learned the fine art of conversation: Ask a question, listen to the answer, “and then she takes a turn and asks a question,” he said. “There are a lot of similarities between dating and interviewing someone for a job.”
Harry spent about a year actively dating women throughout Northern Indiana, but he was feeling out of sorts in his home state. “At this stage of life, all of your relationships with friends change profoundly when one spouse is removed,” Harry said. “It just wasn’t the same.”
So Harry decided to check out “snowbird” living in Florida. He went to Punta Gorda – he and Susie had vacationed there – and though his plan was to find a place to rent, he wound up buying a condo. He got involved with the homeowners association, participated in community social activities, and found golf buddies. He also expanded his Match search to Florida Zip codes.
“The first week I was in Florida, I emailed 15 women,” he said. “Believe it or not, in six days I had dates set up with five of them. My haunting fear was that I would screw up and use the wrong name.”
One of those women was Lani, a Filipino native 10 years younger and more than 6 inches shorter than Harry. Twice married and divorced, she had raised three children by herself in Sarasota, about an hour north of Punta Gorda.
I asked Harry what it was about Lani that made her stand out from the others.
“That’s an interesting question,” Harry said, “because when I first started dating, I asked my married friends, ‘As I meet women, how will I know which is the right one for me?’ And they all, independently, said the exact same thing: ‘Don’t worry, Harry. When you meet the right woman, you’ll know.’ ”
“And I knew,” he said. “There just were things about Lani that I really liked. She’s a very hard-working person, for example, and she’s very neat.”
As their relationship deepened, “I started thinking it was crazy to keep going back and forth between Indiana and Florida,” Harry said. So he sold his house in the Midwest, moved to Florida full time, and asked Lani to marry him.
After two failed marriages and years on her own, Lani needed some convincing, Harry said. “I told her she deserved a man who could show her what a good relationship could be. And we’ve developed that. It takes two people to make it happen.”
Harry and Lani got married on July 4, 2015. “We thought it would be an easy date to remember,” he said. They’ve had some challenges common in gray relationships — starting with the wedding itself. Lani wanted to get married in Hawaii, where her two sons live. But Lani’s daughter, who lives in Florida, couldn’t afford to make the trip. If Harry paid for Lani’s daughter and her family to travel to Hawaii for the wedding, what about his own three kids and their families?
“I didn’t want to spend all that money,” Harry said. So he and Lani got married on the beach in Key West. “We found a couple where the woman performs the ceremony and the husband takes the pictures,” he said.
Where to live also was an issue. Lani works odd hours in Sarasota as a nurse, and Harry had his condo and an active social life in Punta Gorda. He suggested living in North Port, about midway between the two cities.
“I sold my condo and bought a house for us to live in, but it was in my name only and Lani wasn’t happy about that,” he said. “Also, it was still too much driving to her job.”
So Harry flipped the North Port house and purchased one in Sarasota. It’s in both of their names, and they’re sharing the costs.
“I’ve never experienced that before,” Harry said. “It’s a little bit of an effort to be open-minded and sensitive about these kinds of issues.”
Harry also was concerned that if something were to happen to him and Lani at the same time, “our kids might fight about things,” he said. So even though he told his kids “I plan to enjoy my life, and my goal isn’t to see how much money I can leave them,” he persuaded Lani to work out a prenuptial agreement, and they’re updating their wills. “Lani’s used to doing things verbally, with a handshake,” Harry said. “I’ve had to talk her into putting everything in writing.”
Still, Harry sounds content. He and Lani are building a social life in Sarasota as a couple. And while Harry still drives to Punta Gorda weekly for golf with his friends there, he’s confident he’ll make golf buddies in Sarasota as well.
“I knew, coming down here, that this was all going to be a whole new life for me, a whole new experience,” he said. “And I’m OK with that. I just want to enjoy my life and be happy.”