Redbird romance: The story behind ISU’s love bench
He saw her walking up the sidewalk to his fraternity house on an April night for an event with her sorority, and he just knew.
There were a couple of dates before she graduated that spring of 1981. They were then separated by 150 miles, as both returned home until fall. Letters filled the space.
One night during that summer they met on the Quad. They took a walk and stopped to sit on a bench in front of the Bone Student Center. That’s when it happened—their first kiss.
The romance between Lisa Rinkenberger ’81, M.S. ’84, and Matt Walsh ’84 blossomed as she completed a graduate degree in family and consumer sciences and he studied speech communication. The two married on Dec. 14, 1985.
It became tradition for the two to drive from their Chicago home annually to visit the bench. On one of those trips, they discovered it was no longer near the bicycle racks.
“That didn’t stop us,” Matt said. “We’d just go to where the bench used to be.”
It was a dream of his to someday replace the bench. As their 25th anniversary approached, he contacted the campus Facilities Services. The result was the creation of a stone bench with the engraving of “To Those Who Fell in Love at ISU.”
Matt arranged for the bench to be placed on campus. Lisa was not aware of the plan, and was less than enthused when Matt suggested a drive to campus on their anniversary in 2010. “It was sleeting, horrible out,” Lisa recalled. “Matt was very insistent that we had to get out and go to our spot.”
She reluctantly went along, and was emotional when she saw the bench.
“I was overwhelmed,” Lisa said. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that. It was the perfect gift.”
What the bench has meant to other couples has only added to the joy it brings Lisa and Matt. It has become a popular spot for proposals, wedding photos with brides in their gown, and couples who met at ISU posing with their children.
“The fact that other people have taken to it and it means something to them, that just means the world to us,” Matt said.
The couples’ bench, as it’s become known, had been located in the grassy area between the Bone Student Center and the Bowling and Billiards Center. The start of the $33 million student center revitalization project in that same area last fall resulted in the bench being temporarily moved to storage. That sparked a flood of campus emails and calls from Redbirds upset that they could not find the bench.
“We were almost in tears when we didn’t see the bench,” said Rebecca (Ruegger) Olson ’15. Her husband, Brandon ’15, proposed there. “We hold ISU and the bench in a very special place in our hearts.”
“We knew it was an extremely popular and beloved bench,” said Erin (O’Connor) Watts ’05, an assistant director in Event Management, Dining, and Hospitality. “The outpouring of inquiries regarding the bench location during construction only reaffirmed the need for a temporary location until the permanent space is ready.”
Three weeks after the bench went into storage it was back, about 50 yards away from its previous location. When the revitalization project is complete, it will be moved to a newly landscaped area near the Bone Student Center entrance. It will remain there as a reminder of past campus couples and always be the perfect place for those in the future who have yet to begin their own Redbird romance.
Redbirds share their stories
Katelyn Livingston ’11 + Tyler McNeely ’11
Married October 2014
Katelyn Livingston and Tyler McNeely met in 2009. He was a Redbird baseball player studying business administration, and she was a cheerleader majoring in history with a minor in biological sciences. They remained a strong couple following their graduation in 2011.
Two years later, he proposed on Duffy Bass field by using some of his home run balls from his days on the ISU team to spell out the proposal. They chose the bench for their engagement pictures, and returned on their wedding day October 18, 2014.
“The bench is so simple, yet so sweet,” Katelyn said. “It will always hold a big place in our hearts because of the love that we found for each other while attending Illinois State.”
Rachel Benn ’16
Graduated May 2016
Rachel Benn ’16 was a transfer student struggling to find her footing when she arrived. “I didn’t love my major,” she said. “I missed home. I knew ISU was just a sea of opportunities, but they all felt out of my reach in those first couple of months.”
With a professor’s guidance, she found her passion and completed a degree in community health education. Rachel became involved on campus and met a group of women who became her best friends.
“They were and are the brightest lights I’ve ever known,” she said. “We spent every spare moment building each other up. It’s an incredible thing to find people whose souls are made of the same things as yours. Every time I look at our pictures on this bench, my heart explodes.”
Nathalia Prado + Diogo Marson
Married September 2017
Nathalia Prado and Diogo Marson were exchange students from Brazil at ISU in 2013. They had never met until they lived on the floor in Manchester Hall designated for international students. With all they had in common, they not surprisingly started dating. On a snowy December day, they took a photo on the bench. She returned to Brazil soon after, but he stayed another year. Their relationship grew, and they were married Sept. 2, 2017. The bench was included in their wedding cake design.
“The top of our wedding cake was the first bench photo we took because it is a very strong symbol for us,” Nathalia said. “The directions above our heads are the states we are from, and also means the life change we are passing.”
Jasmyn Davis ’16 + Don Mahone ’13
Wedding September 2018
Jasmyn Davis ’16 met transfer student Don Mahone ’13 on her first day of school. They connected at one of his fraternity’s events and became friends. She was studying human resource management, while Don majored in general finance. Their first date was working on a college budget at Chili’s.
“The conversations just got better,” Jasmyn said. “It’s hard to find somebody who has the same values as you, and the same drive as you.”
Jasmyn works for the Chicago Bulls in human resources, and he is an underwriter for Liberty Mutual.
At a backyard party last summer with about about 100 friends and family members, Don proposed. He had made and hung a banner of their ISU bench photo. They will complete their master’s degrees in May, and have set the wedding date for September 7.
“It’s going to be a really big year for us,” she said.
Anita Smith ’12 + Chelsea Oakes ’12
Married September 2015
Anita Smith was from Evanston and Chelsea Oakes grew up in the Quad Cities. They met playing on ISU’s rugby team in 2009. They developed a close friendship while spending time with team members.
A year later, the two started dating. Chelsea majored in psychology, while Anita chose interdisciplinary studies. Both graduated in 2012. They married three years later on September 19, 2015. The two became one of the first couples to host their wedding reception in Hancock Stadium.
During a more recent visit to campus with friends from Oak Park, Anita and Chelsea walked through the Quad and saw the bench. Like so many other Redbird couples, they decided to stop and have a picture taken because, as Anita said, “ISU is where it all started.”
Kaitlyn Zagurski ’16 + Brian Walker ’16
Married September 2017
Although Kaitlyn Zagurski ’16 and Brian Walker ’16 grew up living only 10 minutes apart in the same school district, their paths never crossed until they were in the same Preview group during the summer of 2012.
That fall they ended up living on the same floor in Watterson Towers. She completed a degree in professional sales through the College of Business, while he studied environmental health.
When the two started dating, they began a tradition of having their picture taken at the bench every season. During the first snowfall their senior year, he added to the photo session a marriage proposal. The wedding was September 9, 2017.
Here are a few more love stories from Illinois State alumni:
Mary Kate and Patrick O’Brien met in 2011 working as student equipment managers for the football team. They graduated in 2014 and on the sixth anniversary of the day they met, they got married–Oct. 7, 2017. “ISU means so much to us and the love bench represents everything about our story,” she said. “It is where we met and fell in love; it is where we worked hard and made lifelong friends; it is where we cheered on our favorite team. GO BIRDS!!!”
Hannah (Wallbaum) Emerson ’12 and Tim Emerson ’10 met when she was a sophomore and he was a senior. After graduation, he moved to Ohio, Oklahoma, and Arizona but their relationship went the distance. They were married May 27, 2017. They have a little Redbird, Brooklynn.
Patrick Sanden ’12 proposed to Cassandra Kuczynski ’13 on the bench on a chilly day in March 2013. Since then, they’ve celebrated three wedding anniversaries and have two children.
Morgan (Sabala) Smith ’12 and Chris Smith ’12 met their first semester at ISU. After nearly nine years together, they got married September 16, 2017.
Christy (Stelzer) McFarland ’08 and Chris McFarland ’07 both played rugby at ISU. They were married in 2008, and bring their young Redbird fan to visit the bench.
Shaunda Brooks ’15 met her fiancé, Joseph Green ’12, when she was a sophomore and he was a senior.
Last July, he sent her on a five-hour scavenger hunt around campus, in 100-degree weather, to the locations that meant something to them. The last clue was on the bench, leading her to the gazebo on the Quad, where he proposed. They’ll be married March 23, 2019.
Regina (Mee) Nottke ’91 and Bill Nottke met on campus and were married in August 1992. Their oldest daughter, Nicole Nottke, attends ISU.
Tricia (Berryhill) Banach ’08 attended Homecoming last fall, reconnecting with her friends at the bench. “All of us are married now and we met our husbands after we graduated, but we joke that we all fell in love with each other at ISU,” she said.
Courtney (Armstrong) Kowalski ’01 and Ziggy Kowalski ’02 met during RA training in 2000. She introduced herself and told him they had an economics class together. They started dating and were married in 2005.
Andrea (Darveau) Burie ’12 met Evan Burie ’13 after seeing him sing in the acapella group, Acafellez. They hit it off and in 2016, when they were back on campus for an Acafellaz concert, he proposed in the middle of the concert.
They were married July 2017. Her parents, Paul Darveau ’75 and Carol Darveau ’74, met their sophomore year and have celebrated 44 years of marriage.
Emily Howard met Andrew Stevens in biology. During a study abroad talk, she made a comment under her breath about wanting to go to New Zealand. He heard her, turned and asked, “Hobbits?” She said, “Yeah, Hobbits.” They’ve been together ever since. Both are English majors, with Emily in her junior year and Evan a sophomore. They plan to marry after graduation. On their one-year anniversary, he sent her on a campus scavenger hunt, which ended with him at the bench holding a plate of homemade cookies.
Lexie Hardewig met her boyfriend, Matt Durkin, on the second day of their freshmen year. They both went to the wrong room for math class. “We truly did fall in love at ISU,” she said, adding they plan to take a picture at the bench every year as they complete their degrees and long after graduation. “It’ll be so cool to see all the pictures over the years and how we’ve changed, but the bench stays the same.”
Lisa Marx ’02 and Chris Marx ’01 met in 2001, fell in love and married. They reside in Normal and are owners of Redbird Plumbing. Their three toddlers love everything Redbird, Lisa said, so they often walk and bike through campus. “One of our children’s favorite parts has been finding the love bench,” she said. “The bench has offered us a good opportunity to tell our kids more about how we met, and what an important part ISU has played in all of our lives, from our education, to our family business, to the importance of giving back.”
Erin Barr, M.S. ’17, and John Moreland, M.S. ’16, met as graduate students in the History Department and began dating. They took their graduation photos on the bench.
Terra Horn ’16 and Will Johnson have been dating since they met in Hewett Hall their freshmen year. After their first semester, he took a semester leave to join the Marine Corps Reserve, but they kept the relationship going through letters and SKYPE. She’ll graduate with her master’s in May, and he’ll receive his bachelor’s degree.
Mary (Yurgil) Sojka ’07 and Joseph Sojka ’07 began dating their senior year, and were married five years later in August of 2012. They visit the bench during Homecoming, and include the little Redbird they have added to their family.
Brian and Allyson (Hocking) Greenenwald met their freshmen year as members of the Big Red Marching Machine. Although they didn’t date in college, they became good friends and realized they were meant to be together after graduating in 2007. They were married in October 2011 and have two children.
Do you have a story or photo to share? Post them on the Love Bench at Illinois State Facebook page.
Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.