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“Do not go out with the first boy that asks you!” Those were my mother’s words when I was leaving for college. I promised her I wouldn’t. I’m not exactly sure why that was her advice, but I guess she wanted me to explore my options. Well, my whole life I pretty much did what my parents told me, never really got into any sort of trouble, and definitely kept my promises to them. In this case, though, that was one promise that I will never regret breaking! I’m pretty sure my mom is OK with the fact I broke it as well 😉

My first days at SMU

When I got to SMU in Dallas, I wasn’t sure I was going to be happy there. The place was absolutely beautiful, but I still had my doubts. I got there two weeks before school started to attend Mustang Corral, a camp for new students. I don’t remember much about those first few days, but I do remember coming back from the camp feeling like there was no one there I could see myself be friends with for the next four years. Classes hadn’t started and I was already thinking of where I could possibly transfer to.

The walkway leading up to the freshman quad and McElvaney Hall

I had an old classmate from Honduras that was at SMU as well, and she convinced me to go downstairs one night and hang out on the steps of my dorm where it seemed to be the gathering place for new freshmen every night. The McElvaney steps. Steps that will forever mark two of the most important days of my life.

I begrudgingly agreed, put on a cute outfit and headed downstairs. I sat on the steps for a while making small talk with several people that came and went. At one point I was having a conversation and I said “Honduras” out loud. A boy standing close to us looked our way and said “Did you say Honduras? I have an aunt from Honduras!” I told him that’s where I was from, and he came up to me and confidently shook my hand and said his name was Ryan Cooper from Dayton, right outside of “Uston”. That accent! I introduced myself as Valerie Kestenbaum, and he proceeded to sit next to me. And this is where it happened.

The football player from outside of “Uston”

The moment this “Ryan” from outside of “Uston”, this totally not my type, rugged and very well built, shaved head and a goatee football player boy sat next to me it hit me! I thought “Well, this is it. This is the boy I’m going to marry. On Monday, when I go to class, it won’t matter what cute boys sit next to me anymore, because this is my guy. Hmmm, that’s not what I had in mind, but this is it.” To this day I cannot tell you how on Earth that thought came into my head. Like I said, he was the furthest from any guy I had ever liked or gone out with. But that’s what I thought. We talked for a long while, I couldn’t tell you about what! But we talked and talked. When it was time to go, we said our goodbyes and nice to meet yous.

As I was walking up my stairs, it hit me again! What was I thinking!! I had just said goodbye to the boy I was going to marry and I had no clue how to contact him again! Didn’t know which dorm he was staying in, didn’t know his schedule, didn’t know anything!! Remember, there was no Facebook or cell phones back then, and there were thousands of students in the university. I went to bed with a sinking feeling and prayed that I would see Ryan again in this sea of people at SMU.

The next morning, my friend from Honduras, once again convinced me to step out of my room and go to a big barbecue that was being offered for incoming freshmen. I agreed and went with the hopes that there was a slight chance I’d see Ryan again. We walked to the field where the barbecue was being held, and I kid you not, the moment I stepped on the field and looked up, there he was! Ryan from “Uston”! He spotted me as well and we walked towards each other. I sheepishly greeted him and said, “You probably don’t remember my name.” To which he replied “Of course I do! Valerie Kestenbaum from Tegucigalpa, Honduras!” What!?!? Not only did he remember my name, he remembered my last name AND he pronounced it correctly! This was definitely going to be the one!

We spent the entire barbecue together with a group of people and he was very charming the whole time. All eyes and attention on me the entire time, and he kept saying to his friends “She’s so sweet isn’t she?” Right in front of me! It was a little embarrassing, but of course, I loved it!

We collected all kinds of trinkets and free gifts at the barbecue, like sunglasses, and drink holders, etc. When the barbecue was over he suggested we join his group of friends on a trip to downtown to eat dinner. I was definitely in and I had a plan to make sure I would see him again after this day! I took all his trinkets and said I would take them to my room and he could pick them up later. He agreed of course and I took all our stuff to my room. I was certain this way, he had to come see me to get his things. Well, to this day, I still have those trinkets. He never did pick them up. Not because we didn’t see each other, but because we never thought about them again. It wasn’t necessary. We would from that point forward see each other every single day those next few weeks.

Ryan and I hanging out in McElvaney Hall

One night after about 2 weeks of spending as much of our days together, Ryan called my room. We talked for a little bit and then he said: “So, I was wondering if you wanted to go out with me?” Oh my gosh! That moment I had been waiting for! But wait! It had only been two weeks, and my mom made me promise! And can you go out with someone so soon after you meet them? So many thoughts rushing through my head! My answer “Well, I really like you but maybe we should wait a little longer, it’s only been 2 weeks.” He sounded deflated and said OK, and good night. The second I hung up the phone, I thought “Oh no, what if he meant going out on a date?!? I’m in the US now, and people go out on dates, I would definitely go out on a date!” So I immediately picked up the phone and called him back. I said, “Did you mean go out on a date, or go out as in be your girlfriend?” He quickly answered, “As in be my girlfriend”. I said “Oh, OK. Bye.” and hung up! What was wrong with me?!?! I don’t know how this boy ended up marrying me after that fiasco, but he did!

Spring semester 1995

We still were together every day after that, and about a week later I decided it was dumb not to be his girlfriend since I already knew he was the one. Problem is, when I turned him down, he had decided he wasn’t going to ask me again. He still liked me and wanted to go out with me but he wouldn’t ask again. So no matter what kind of hints I dropped the boy wasn’t having it.

So one night, when we were all gathered in the commons area of his dorm, a girl asked us where we were from when we both said where we were from she looked confused. She said she’d been seeing us and assumed we came to college together. She then asked if we were going out. This was my chance. Ryan just sat there quietly, he didn’t answer. But I did. “Yes”, I said, “Yes we are.” He quickly turned to me and said “We are?!?”, I said, “We are!” He got so excited he came at me with a huge hug, and everyone started clapping! Talk about embarrassing! But that was it. I was officially going out with the boy I was going to marry!

Freshman Formal

From that point on I became known as Mrs. Coop by all his football buddies. We were together every day and as soon as we had a chance to register for our next semester we took almost every class together. We had so many adventures in college. It was truly amazing that I got to spend my college years with my best friend and the man I was going to marry!

One of the countless times doing our schoolwork together

Our senior year, I was so eagerly waiting for him to just propose. We had known for several years we were going to get married and we always talked about it. We had even been ring shopping so I could pick what I liked. I would always ask him to just go get the ring and give it to me, since we already knew anyway. But he always said, he wanted me to have a story. He wanted me to walk into a room and when someone saw my ring and asked about it, I would be able to tell them a story!

My beautiful ring!

It was December 14th and classes were out for the winter break. My best friend Kim and I were getting ready to go on a double date with Ryan and Barry (who would become Kim’s husband). Kim and I had even gone to go get our nails done, upon Kim’s insistence. I didn’t think anything of it because we had already booked Ryan’s plane ticket to Honduras so he could ask my dad for my hand in marriage and have a formal proposal. Ryan called and asked if we were ready to be picked up. He lived in an apartment a few minutes away from ours. So a few minutes later, the doorbell rang. Kim came and let me know it was for me. I said, “Of course, it’s Ryan.” She said, “No, it’s a man.”

I went to the door and there was a man in a black suit standing there. He handed me an envelope. I opened it and my hands were shaking. I looked at the letter, and looked at it again, but couldn’t really read it in all my nerves. The man said to come with him. Kim shoved me along assuring me that it was OK. I got to the steps and saw a white limo parked at the foot of them. I shakily walked downstairs, the man opened the door of the limo for me and then proceeded to get in. He said “Ryan said you’d know where to go” What?!?!?! What was he talking about I’d know where to go! I had no clue! I was shaking! I was panicking! I said, “I don’t know where to go!!!” Good grief I was going to miss my own engagement!! The man very calmly said, “Ma’am, maybe you should read the letter.” The letter!! Of course! And then, it was clear.

When we got there I got out of the limo and I don’t remember much else. I remember the courtyard being empty since it was winter break, and I remember Ryan standing at the top of the steps. I cried as I walked towards him and he cried too. I don’t remember what he said or how it all went down, but in the end, I had a ring on my finger and I was going to marry the love of my life!!

The night of the engagement.

And there’s my story! Ryan gave me a story, and for that, I will forever be thankful. That rugged, shaved head, football player turned out to be the most amazing husband and father I could ever wish for. I thank God every single day for that night on those steps.

The University newspaper featured us in a Valentine’s Day article and made us recreate the moment.

10 years and 2 kids later

15 years and 3 kids later. It’s time to head back to the steps again to take another family photo.