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February 8, 2007

Panther love: Couples meet, marry at Pitt

For better or for worse, February is the time when love is in the air. Hearts and flowers rule as Valentine’s Day melts the midwinter chill with heartwarming sentiments.

Romance can be found anywhere, but the workplace is high on the list. A 2005 office romance survey by online business and career information site found a majority of respondents — 58 percent — had been involved in a workplace relationship. Others were hopeful — 11 percent admitted that they had no office romance experience, but were willing.

It’s evident that Cupid’s working 9-5 — 43 percent of the survey respondents said they had co-workers involved in an office romance. Most felt office relationships weren’t a problem. Fifty-nine percent said that if they were a manager, they’d intervene only if work were compromised.

At Pitt, office romance is addressed in the “consensual relationships” portion of the University’s sexual harassment policy (07-06-04), which states, in part: “Personal relationships must not be allowed to interfere with the academic or professional integrity of the teacher-student, staff-student, supervisor-employee or other professional relations within the University.” The Staff Handbook’s nepotism policy also touches on the effect personal relationships can have on the workplace. The policy forbids those with a personal relationship (including being married or the equivalent of being married) to have a reporting relationship in the supervisory chain, said John Greeno, assistant vice chancellor for employee/labor relations.

Greeno said his department doesn’t delve into Pitt employees’ personal relationships unless it’s been alerted to a concern. “If no one else is concerned, we wouldn’t be either,” he said, adding that solutions are devised case-by-case if issues arise.

Along with the cautionary note, “Be careful about any kind of personal relationships within the department,” Greeno acknowledged that human nature has its role, and romance between some co-workers is inevitable. “Nobody plans these things,” he said, noting that office colleagues often are the people one spends the most time with, yielding opportunity for a spark to grow into a flame.

A 2002 American Greetings survey found work to be among the top places for couples to meet: 37 percent of respondents met their partners through friends, 35 percent met at school and 31 percent at work.

Combine the three factors — school, work and friends — with more than 12,000 faculty and staff members on the University’s five campuses, and there are plenty of opportunities for dating and mating.


“There’s something to be said for proximity,” acknowledged Sharon Bertsch Walstad, an associate professor of psychology at Pitt-Johnstown. She and her husband, Allan Walstad, an associate professor of physics whose office is near hers, have been married since 2004.

“It was inevitable we’d meet,” he said, although they had only a nodding acquaintance for several years before he finally asked her out. “I didn’t have anything in particular to talk to her about,” he said, adding that he had been trying to think of an excuse to ask her out. “She was a cute single gal,” he said, noting that the opportunities for social interaction are more difficult in Johnstown than in a larger city such as Pittsburgh. “If you’re an intellectual, your opportunity to find someone who’s an intellectual who’s single anywhere near your age is not great,” said Allan, who has taught at UPJ for 29 years. “I didn’t know if she’d be interested in me, but she said yeah, and the rest’s history,” he said.

Sharon agreed with her husband’s assessment of the small-town dating scene, adding that she was in her mid-30s when the two met. She said she’d come to terms with being single and figured that romance, if it happened, would come along in its own good time.

Their first date was at an Italian restaurant. He had a pair of relatives coming into town and asked her to join them. “He thought it was a good excuse to ask me out, it would be practical to have four people,” she recalled. “I basically said yes because he seemed like a nice guy and I didn’t have anything better to do.”

A relative newcomer to UPJ, she’d been on campus less than three years when they began dating. Admitting that she’s “known far and wide for poor character judgment,” Sharon said she asked around to be sure he wasn’t a masher. But she also credits her colleagues for keeping silent about her husband’s “troublemaker” reputation — he’s outspoken on campus issues — and letting her form her own opinion. She soon found him to be a “great match” and, reputation notwithstanding, “a genuinely nice guy.”

Even the relatives who shared their first date were nice.

After dating 10 months, the pair made wedding plans and married in the Johnstown campus chapel a year and a half later.

She admits she considered the implications of dating in the workplace. “You always hear it’s something you shouldn’t do,” she said. While she said she never could have dated someone within her department, she reasoned that because she and Allan don’t interact much on campus and had separate circles of friends, if something in the relationship had gone awry, “I could pretty much go my way and he could have gone his,” she said.

Unlike some married couples who work closely together, theirs is not a problem of too much togetherness in the workplace because their commitments and teaching schedules rarely align. “Once we get to school, I hardly ever see him,” she said.

The only disadvantage is in occasionally bringing campus issues home. “Sometimes we do argue about campus politics,” Allan said, noting that it’s not unusual for couples to disagree. “Anybody’s going to argue,” he said. “But occasionally we just have to stop the discussion. We agree to disagree agreeably.”


Diane Drazdzinski met her husband two decades ago on her first day on the job in Institutional Research (now Management Information and Analysis) on the 19th floor of the Cathedral of Learning. “Mike was the janitor on our floor,” she said.

Center for Instructional Design and Distance Education photographer Mike Drazdzinski has been at Pitt since 1984. While his wife has worked in the same office for 20 years, he’s had several jobs on campus. He started as a student custodian, took a custodial job in the Cathedral in 1985, then spent five years as an elevator operator in the building before accepting the CIDDE position in 1997.

Theirs was a relationship that grew slowly. “We started talking and developed a friendship,” she said. “It took nine months for him to ask me out.”

“I passed through (her office) every day,” he said, adding that he had considered the implications of dating a co-worker, knowing that he’d still have to go back there every day regardless of how the relationship worked out. Neither had dated a Pitt co-worker before.

“We were old enough that it wasn’t a problem,” she said. “We were pretty good friends before we started dating.”

Their decision to marry wasn’t rushed either. The two dated from 1987 until they married in 1991. Mike noted that juggling his work at Pitt, his own photography business and freelance jobs left little time to rush a relationship.

When the time came to pop the question, he set up a fake photo shoot on the West End Circle, ostensibly to photograph the Pittsburgh skyline. “I was nervous,” he said, admitting he snapped an entire roll of film pretty quickly. He asked her to retrieve a roll of film from his camera bag, but when she opened the canister “the ring flew out and almost rolled down the hill,” he said.

Their engagement lasted a year, in part because they needed to schedule their wedding around Mike’s bookings as a wedding photographer and photographer for NFL football. “She knew what she was getting into,” he joked, adding that his wife now helps with the behind-the-scenes aspects of his business, MD Photography.

The Drazdzinskis say they’ve had no problem keeping their work life separated from their personal relationship. Their differing schedules mean they rarely see one another on campus.

For a time, the two commuted together, but now Diane arrives on campus around 7 a.m., while Mike typically starts around 9. On occasion, when he was an elevator operator, the two could share lunch, but now their schedules rarely align. Mike’s work at Pitt and in his own photography business make for numerous nights and weekends on the job.

Diane said neither has experienced any negative reaction from co-workers about their relationship. “I think people were happy for us,” she said.


Another pair of office neighbors who now share more than just their workweek together are Pitt-Bradford faculty members Francis and Mary Puterbaugh Mulcahy.

The two met even before UPB’s new biology faculty member Mary Puterbaugh unpacked her bags on campus in fall 1998. Francis, a chemistry professor, was among the search committee members she met during the hiring process.

While there were no sparks apparent at the time, Mary said the two liked one another. When she arrived, Francis, who’d taught at UPB since 1989, offered his help to the newcomer.

“She had the office next door and was just getting started. I helped her with a few things because I’d been there and knew the ropes,” he said.

“By Christmas I’d dragged up enough courage to ask her out,” he said. Their first date was shoveling manure on a colleague’s farm. “Nothing in our relationship stinks of high romance,” he joked.

The two shared a canoe on UPB’s annual Bradford-to-Pittsburgh Allegheny River Scholars canoe trip that summer, and shortly afterward decided to get married. They tied the knot in June 2000.

“We were both really shy about dating,” she said, admitting that colleagues in the department may have done a bit of nudging to get the two together. “I think they caught on before we did,” she said.

The two were open about their relationship on campus, walking together for exercise, although Mary initially thought, “Omigosh, the students will know.” She said, “We didn’t announce our dating or engagement to the entire campus, but we did tell our chairs, and we told anyone who had the courage to ask us outright. And, walking around the circle together made our relationship quite visible and open in a healthy way, I think.”

Although the two teach different courses, Mary said sharing a workplace is a plus. “We help each other out,” she said. She has sympathy for couples who chose their partners before they chose their careers and considers her situation fortunate.

“It’s not that one or the other had to make a sacrifice to follow one or another’s career pursuits,” she said, noting that both had established themselves in positions they wanted before marrying.

A little life experience mattered, too. She was about 30 when she arrived on campus; Francis is seven years her senior.

“Every step of the way, we were both confident that we could walk away from the relationship as friends and continue to work together fine. And I really do believe that would have been the case,” she said.

“Being older, I think we were at a relaxed point of life — where we both predicted we would remain single forever, both expected to be happy single forever, and so we didn’t feel enormous pressure that the relationship had to work — it was just very nice that it did.”


Roy Cooper of Housing Administration first set eyes on his wife, Lorraine, before he started working at Pitt. “But she doesn’t remember,” he said with a laugh. As he remembers it, he was visiting a friend who worked at the University and asked about the young woman he’d noticed working as a desk attendant. “He told me, “Don’t bother her now, because she’s in a man-hating phase,’” he said.

Her take: “I’d had a rough year,” said Lorraine Cooper, also of Housing Administration. “I was going to just focus on working.”

The next time Roy saw her, he’d applied for and gotten a job at Pitt as a desk attendant. She’d moved from part-time to a full-time position at Pitt, so the two found themselves in the same employee orientation session. “Fateful,” he calls it. That was in August 1991.

The two worked in the same desk attendant positions, on different shifts, although Roy remembers working nights and many double shifts, and spending time on the phone with Lorraine — asking her advice on how to work the buildings. Since he was new, he relied on her experience to help familiarize himself with the various buildings to which he was assigned.

They were friendly, but Roy jokes that he waited to ask her out until his three-month probationary period was over just in case it was a breach of the rules. On Nov. 4, 1991, they went to the movies together for the first time, but kept their relationship quiet from their co-workers. “Since we were in the same department, we had to keep it on the down-low,” he said. “People talk.” When they went out — to movies, museums and concerts — they rarely stayed in Oakland. Lorraine, who uses a wheelchair, at the time used crutches, and remembers being impressed that it made no difference to Roy. “There was no change in his attitude. Everything was the same,” she said. She recalls that he didn’t ask “whether” she could do a particular thing, “It was, ‘I want to do this, or I want to go there, do you?’” she said. “I felt at ease.”

Lorraine said she remembers thinking Roy was a great guy, but she admits they took their time developing their friendship — she even refused to hand over her phone number at first because she didn’t want him to become too familiar too fast.

He was in no hurry, either, he said, admitting he was gun-shy about the prospect of marriage after having his heart broken in previous relationships.

“It was a normal back-and-forth friendship,” she said. “We took it slowly. It was a natural thing.”

When matchmaking co-workers later tried to nudge Roy into asking Lorraine out — not knowing they’d been dating for nearly a year — he dismissed them by saying “I don’t think she’d go for it,” he said.

The two wanted to develop their relationship without interference from co-workers, Roy said. “We didn’t know if we really were there yet,” he said, noting they wanted to keep others from injecting themselves, whether for helpful or hurtful purposes, into their relationship.

Some co-workers had their suspicions, “but they couldn’t pin it down,” Lorraine said. When the couple decided the time was right to admit they’d been dating, “They all said, ‘I knew it,’” Lorraine said with a laugh.

Their wedding day, May 4, 1996, was chosen because it was six months after the anniversary of their first date, he said.

“We scheduled it for right after (student housing) check-out,” she said.

The two don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day specifically, but that doesn’t mean there’s no romance, even after 16 years together, she said. “He picks the day,” she said, adding that he’s full of surprises. “He always plants things,” she said — anything from her favorite candy to jewelry — in a grocery bag, in the car or tucked into her lunch.

The two have grown together over the years, she said. She attributes their success to making decisions jointly and compromising when needed. “We have separate goals and like goals,” she said. “He doesn’t stop me from dreaming, and I don’t stop him.”

The Coopers agree that working in the same department allows them to understand each other’s jobs. “We know the schedule, how things have to be,” she said.

Their work has changed over the years and both now work daylight hours in Housing Services administration — Roy is in charge of the stockroom, Lorraine is an administrative assistant.

Still, their rule is to keep their work and home lives separate.

“We try not to bring it home,” Roy said. Work is in one place; their relationship is in another.

Lorraine resists allowing co-workers to assume she knows where her husband is during the workday. “I don’t track him, and he doesn’t keep track of me,” she said. Likewise, she said she keeps her distance from his work. “Whatever he’s doing in his office, his space is his business,” she said.


Tom and Elaine Meisner began their relationship on the other side of the teacher’s desk as undergraduates at Pitt. Four decades later, they’ve maintained their ties to each other and to the University and have come full circle: Today both are employed here.

Tom, retired from a career in education, has been a docent/events coordinator at Heinz Chapel for six years. Elaine, who has held several Pitt jobs over the years, is senior director of alumni outreach.

The Meisners met as students in a senior English class in 1967.

She was taking the Major American Writers class as part of the sequence for her major; he needed it to fulfill part of his distribution of studies requirements, and got into the already-filled class by tracking down the professor over the summer to ask permission, he recalled.

“It was a very auspicious beginning,” Elaine recalls.

Sparks — not the romantic kind — flew early on.

“He sat next to me,” Elaine remembers, adding that they met when Tom, who’d missed the first class, asked to borrow her notes.

“Elaine was very pretty. And also, I could tell she’d taken good notes,” Tom said.

She was reluctant to hand over her notebook, which contained notes for three of her classes. “I didn’t know him,” she said. “But he gave me a pathetic look,” and she relented, after exacting his promise to return the notes at the next class.

“Well, Tom didn’t come to the next class,” she said. “I didn’t know his name or anything, but his roommate also sat in my row, so I asked him, ‘Where’s your friend?’”

Tom’s buddy asked for her phone number so he could have Tom call her, but she refused, insisting instead on having Tom meet her the next day near the former Tuck Shop in the Cathedral.

“I was not happy,” she said emphatically.

He showed up with the excuse that as student government vice president he’d missed class due to another commitment. She was unsympathetic. “I don’t care who you are, I want my notes,” she said.

He recalls her tirade as a bit more colorful, but continued to sit near her in class, apologizing and offering to take her out — to lunch, for a drink — to make it up to her. Eventually he convinced her to have a bowl of chili with him at an Oakland bar.

“He finally wore me down,” she said, adding that he still uses the tactic on occasion. Her ire abated as Cupid did his work. “Initially I was just angry and just didn’t give Tom a chance,” Elaine said. Tom asked her to a formal dance. “I still wasn’t sure about him, but I wanted to go to the event,” she said.

The pair dated for a year and a half, graduated and got engaged in 1968, then married in Heinz Chapel in May 1969. She got a job in Admissions, while he went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees at Pitt. The two left for Carlisle to pursue his career in the late 1970s; Elaine got involved in regional admissions for Pitt in central Pennsylvania. A later career move took Tom to Connecticut, where Elaine was instrumental in forming a Pitt alumni group in the 1980s.

The Meisners returned to Pittsburgh in the early 1990s. Elaine returned to work at Pitt, taking a joint alumni/admissions position in 1992.

“We never lost our connection to the campus from the time we started,” she said. Their Pitt connections have evolved and grown, Tom said, noting that he’d been involved in student government when Wesley Posvar was chancellor. “We’ve watched and been part of that growth and expansion. There’s lots to be proud of,” he said.

The Meisners have donated funds to equip a classroom in the School of Education and are ardent supporters of Pitt athletics, holding season tickets for basketball — both men’s and women’s — as well as football. With the exception of his time in Connecticut, Tom has seen every Pitt home game since 1964.

When Tom retired from public education in 2001, his rest and relaxation was short-lived. Elaine brought home the announcement that a part-time job was open at Heinz Chapel, he applied, and a month later the job was his.

“And now I work in the most beautiful building on campus,” he said. Primary among his jobs at the chapel where he and Elaine spoke their vows 38 years ago: ensuring Pitt brides and grooms who wed at the chapel start their own marriages smoothly.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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