Sometimes fate has something up its sleeve you never expected.
TOM SULLIVAN SPOTTED CLAU-dia Bolen before she saw him. Squeezing past a row of her fellow principals, hunting for a seat at a back-to-school meeting for Loudoun County, Va., staff members, she walked right past him. Recently widowed, she had arrived late to the 2000 meeting to avoid a crush of sympathy.
Sullivan presumed he was a stranger in the packed room, new to the district and going through a painful separation with his wife. But here was Bolen, he thought, a face from his past, looking just how she did 35 years earlier when they briefly courted in college, and she had unceremoniously dumped him.
Theirs is a story of perfect coincidences, of the quirkiness of fate that returned two people to each other, but not a minute before they were ready. It's the kind of story that friends and co-workers trade in hallways, a sweet respite from daily routines.
After a lifetime apart, Tom Sullivan and Claudia Bolen-Sullivan are retiring this month from their Loudoun school jobs and, newlyweds at 59, embarking on a life together.
"We're basically starting anew," he said.
Sullivan proposed Valentine's Day 2003, and they were married at her rural home over Memorial Day weekend last year. Now, they want both to travel abroad and stay at home sitting on their deck.
There are lessons to be drawn from all of it, they said -- patience for one. And trust that doors thought closed never truly are.
"You think of all the little things that could have gone wrong. If I hadn't applied for the job. If she hadn't come to the meeting that day," he said. "You just think there must be some plan here."
They were 18 when they met the first time, freshmen at West Virginia's Shepherd University in 1964. They had been high school sports stars -- she in Loudoun and he in Winchester -- and they enrolled at the college on the advice of teachers who suggested its education program.
They found each other on her first day on campus.
Freshmen were required to wear cringe-inducing beanies to mark them from the crowd. Claudia Hoeltzel, as she was known then, was unhappily sporting hers when she heard a mild voice behind her. "Hey, freshman," the young man said. "Whatcha doing?"
Sullivan was a football player and had been on campus for a few weeks for training. He advised her to ditch the embarrassing headgear. The two became fast friends.
He was sweet and soft-spoken, she said, and the two sometimes would sit together for hours without saying a word. He remembers her being "cute as a button."
But Claudia had a secret. The summer before arriving at college, she started dating an older man, an outgoing coach at her high school named Phil Bolen.
Bolen had encouraged his young girlfriend to go explore the world at college. But on a visit home to Loudoun one weekend, he showed up on her doorstep asking where she had been. She explained that she was terribly confused because she had been dating a nice boy at school.
"You need to stop seeing him," she remembers him saying.
"Well, then," she responded, "I think we need to get married."
She returned to Shepherd engaged.
When Sullivan showed up at her dorm a few days later, Claudia could not bear to break the news. She sent a friend to tell him instead.
"I got a severe lecture from her, but that's what I did," she recalled.
Now, Sullivan recalls being puzzled by the exchange, figuring there must have been a thing or two he had not known about this young woman. The friend, who lives in Colonial Beach, said that Sullivan was more than just confused. "He was brokenhearted," Dee Seeber said.
Over the next three years, the two somehow managed never to run into each again at the small school. She lived off-campus after her wedding and graduated early. Their classes were on opposite sides of campus.
Life goes on
After that, life took over. Sullivan married a woman he met in graduate school and went to work in Winchester, 40 miles away, building a family and a thriving three-decade career.
In Loudoun, everybody knew Claudia and Phil. He eventually became county administrator. She became a teacher, an assistant principal and then principal of Harper Park Middle School.
Every so often, Claudia Bolen and Tom Sullivan wondered what had become of the other, but with nostalgic curiosity and nothing more.
They said they talk about all the times they might have run into each other too early. Avid athletes, they played sports at Stonebrook fitness club in Winchester. She played tennis outdoors, and he played racquetball inside.
For years, they ran the 10K race at Winchester's Apple Blossom. Now they wonder, did they ever run it together, separated by the crowd?
Their children -- her two sons, his two daughters -- played high school and college sports about the same time. Could they have been at the same game, the same swim meet?
"We both had relationships that we were successful in," she said. "We probably would have said, 'Hi, how are you' and moved on."
At the 2000 meeting, Sullivan waited until a break in the meeting to make his move. From behind, Bolen-Sullivan said she heard a familiar voice.
"I recognized him immediately," she said. "I was shocked and speechless."
At lunches and drives around the county after the meeting, they got to know each other anew, asking each other a thousand questions. "We reconstructed our whole lives," she said.
He was struggling with the dissolution of a long marriage and his new job as director of construction for the quickly growing school system. She was grieving the man who had been her best friend, and they talked about those things, too. In the retelling of all that went on while they were apart, they remembered what once brought them together.
Matthew Bolen, Claudia's 34-year-old son, remembers worrying about his mother at Christmas that year. After a long day with family, he and his brother had the same wrenching thought -- their mother would be going home alone. But by the next year, Tom was there, and they felt better.
"The people that have left us, they'll always be with us," Matthew Bolen said. "But you have to keep living your life."