The symphony of power tools conducted by men in hard hats still echoed in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains when Carol Ryan first arrived at the brand-new liberal arts college in Mahwah, N.J.
Though several classrooms on the leafy campus were still without hinges for windows and doors, Ms. Ryan, a 28-year-old freshman and married mother of three, was firmly in place on her first day of school at Ramapo College, and much like the fledgling institution, awash in promise and potential. That was September 1971.
“No four years of my life had a greater impact on me than those at Ramapo College,” Ms. Ryan, 78, wrote nearly a half-century later, in April 2019, as part of an answer to a survey given to her and other students in the class of 1975, Ramapo’s first group of graduates.
To catch-up on the lives of Ms. Ryan, by then a widow, and her former classmates, Ramapo officials sent each a seven-question survey, starting with: “How did you hear about Ramapo College, and why did you decide to enroll? Was it what you expected?
Ms. Ryan, who grew up in Jersey City, N.J., and was raised in Bogota, N.J., said she “very much enjoyed” taking the survey, in which she mentioned that she graduated with honors from Ramapo before receiving a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia.
“It brought back so many great memories, and stirred up so much emotion that was trapped inside of me,” she said, like the memory of the places on campus she remembered best (Question No. 3). “The library was one of my favorite places,” she wrote. “But attending a class, outside on a pretty spring day, sitting on the grass, under the sweeping lilac bushes, was memorable. I certainly will never forget the stirring words, as I sat on the pavement three feet in front of Jane Fonda, when she conducted a rousing anti-Vietnam War rally.”
Ms. Ryan’s completed survey landed in the hands of Clifford Peterson, 79, who spent 40 years at Ramapo College as both a professor of international politics and chairman of its international studies program before retiring in 2012. He had a 52-year marriage, which produced two sons, before becoming a widower.
“I was enchanted by her writing, by the incredible life she lived, simply enchanted,” said Dr. Peterson, who also happened to be on a committee that was planning for Ramapo’s 50th anniversary celebration, to be held next year at the college.
Dr. Peterson, who was born in Newark and grew up in Nutley, N.J., graduated from Rutgers before earning a Ph.D. in international politics from Johns Hopkins University. He was responsible for helping a colleague at Ramapo examine the responses of the 65 surveys that had been returned to the school. “Many of the other surveys I read were quite wonderful,” he said, “but every one of Ms. Ryan’s answers just blew me away.”
Dr. Peterson, who began teaching at Ramapo in 1972, said that he personally knew most of the 1975 graduates he was helping to contact. But he had never met Ms. Ryan, whose answers to many of the survey questions painted a portrait of a dedicated mother and wife who somehow managed to find the time to be an outstanding student-athlete at Ramapo. She excelled on the tennis court, becoming the school’s first captain in that sport, and in the classroom, where she was an honors student.
“All the time that I was attending classes, I was also attending P.T.A. meetings, driving my kids to functions and generally running a household as a wife, mother and ‘homemaker,’ baking bread, getting three meals a day on the table, holding an elected local county committee political office and leading a troop of Girl Scouts,” she wrote, in part, as her answer to Question No. 6.
“Thereafter,” she continued, “my professional career included working in New York City with the government of Hong Kong; with a division of the US Mission to the United Nations; with a nonprofit economic and policy conference organization; 17 years with an environmental organization and I also headed up a Hudson Valley business venture linked with Wuhan, China. I presently conduct guided tours at the Rockefeller estate, Kykuit.”
Dr. Peterson was beyond impressed. “I’m reading this woman’s survey, and thinking to myself, ‘My goodness, where was this woman hiding the past 50 years.”
On June 11, 2019, Dr. Peterson dialed Ms. Ryan’s phone number, on behalf of Ramapo College, to first answer a few questions she had sent along regarding the school’s sports hall of fame, then thanked her for filling out her survey “in such great detail,” as he put it. He then asked if she might be interested in visiting the campus to meet some of Ramapo’s faculty members, including those putting together the 50th anniversary program.
“After that, I’d like to take you to lunch, and maybe walk around the campus together,” said Dr. Peterson, whose voice is reminiscent of the Hollywood film star Jimmy Stewart.
Ms. Ryan said she had practically sworn off dating after two, 25-year relationships — “the first with my husband, the second with my significant other,” she said — that both ended with the death of each man. But she went ahead and accepted Dr. Peterson’s invitation.
“There was just something about him that put me at ease,” she said, “and oh boy was he smart, and could he make me laugh.”
Dr. Peterson was soon walking with her, touring their old stamping grounds and hoping to become the next magical entry in her Ramapo survey.
“I knew right then and there I wanted to marry her,” he said. “I honestly believe I was in love with Carol before I ever met her in person.”
She was feeling much the same. “It was like we were on the same wave length, finishing each other’s sentences, and we were honest with each other and compatible in every way possible,” she said. “I had never met a man quite like him.”
They began dating immediately. Each helped the other “become better people, even at this stage of our lives,” Dr. Peterson said. “I was a very private person when I met Carol, but she got me to open up. She just keeps bringing out the best in me.”
Three months later, on Sept. 14, 2019, the couple got engaged at the Lyndhurst craft fair in Tarrytown, N.Y. As torrential rain fell, Dr. Peterson escorted Ms. Ryan into a vendor’s tent and asked to see a collection of rings, their eyes drawn to the same elegant gold-sculpted band.
Ms. Ryan’s only question, “Would it fit?”
“It fit perfectly,” Dr. Peterson said, “just like Cinderella’s slipper.”
They were married May 30 in an early-morning ceremony at Louis Engel Waterfront Park in Ossining, N.Y. Their party of five, which gathered along the Hudson River on a day when thunderstorms were forecast, included their officiant, Sue Donnelly, town clerk of Ossining, as well as the couple’s good friends, Dr. Marsha Gordon and her husband, Eli Gordon, who served as witnesses.
Their ceremony was originally scheduled to take place May 31, followed by a reception on the Ramapo College campus with 150 guests, but the coronavirus changed those plans. Instead, about 400 family members and friends watched the couple exchange vows via Zoom.
“We knew from that very first meeting last June that we filled a void in each other’s lives with love, so many common interests and experiences, a set of shared deeply held personal values and a profound respect for all human beings,” the groom told his bride. “From the perspective of these things and a lifetime of the full spectrum of human emotions and experiences, ours is a mature love based on mutual respect and a complete partnership in every sense.”
Then the bride spoke, mostly through tears. The forecast that had called for rain had now surrendered to sunshine.
“You entered my life and in an amazing, almost mystical way, you entered my heart,” she said, “I met you for the very first time that brilliant day, but as we strolled the campus, we could not help imagining how we certainly must have passed each other in the hallways of the college hundreds of times nearly 50 years ago.
“I am truly grateful for our wonderful, welcoming families and every one of our great friends, for our good health and for all the exciting ‘reasonable adventures’ that we have experienced during our long, long lives and are sharing together now.
“And I must admit,” she added, “I’m even grateful for the months and months of our 24/7 splendid Covid-19 isolation, which has established beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are beautifully, perfectly suited for each other — it just gets better every day.”
On This Day
When May 30, 2020
Where Louis Engel Waterfront Park, Ossining, N.Y.
Old School Style The groom wore a top hat, morning coat with tails, striped pants, cravat and a wing-tipped shirt with monogrammed sterling silver cuff links, which the bride had given him for his 79th birthday just days before the wedding. The bride wore a multitiered, ivory chiffon dress designed by Nataya that had a 1920s look, topped off with a matching ivory colored fascinator.
Leaving the Treehouse The newlyweds are planning to stay this summer at what the bride called her “treehouse condo,” overlooking the Hudson River in Ossining. Starting in September, they will begin living together in Scotch Plains, N.J.
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