Bobby Crates remembers his mother made chocolate fudge every Valentine’s Day for him to take to school and give to classmates. His responsibility was to place a red cinnamon heart in the middle of each piece. Little did he know that one of those classmates would end up being his real Valentine many years later.
Bobby Crates and Jean Spears graduated in 1953 from The Bright School, or Bright’s, as it was referred to when founder Mary G. Bright was still headmistress. After graduation, they went their separate ways to McCallie and GPS, respectively, and later ended up at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But it was some 50 years later, after both had families of their own, that they reconnected in Chattanooga. November marked their seventh wedding anniversary.
“When we were reintroduced, it was like yesterday when I had seen her,” Bobby said, as they told their story in the living room of their home. “He looks just the same to me,” added Jean.
The story goes that Jean’s cousins and daughter devised a scheme for Jean and Bobby to meet again while she was visiting Chattanooga from Florida. Jean was eating dinner with her cousin Joe Wilson and his wife, Pat, along with another cousin Dick Fowler and his wife, Sarah, when they saw Bobby and invited him to come over to their table. They did not tell Jean about the plan.
“They were having a heyday, especially my daughter. She thought it was the most fun thing she had ever done,” Jean recalled. “They got real silly and were giggling. They finally settled down, and I saw a male figure out of the corner of my eye coming toward me. I was just getting ready to say, ‘Sir, I think you have the wrong table,’ until I realized it was Bobby.”
Of course, they had plenty to talk about, including Jean’s father, Bill Spears, an All-American football player at Vanderbilt and a founder of Spears, Moore, Rebman and Williams law firm in Chattanooga. Jean and Bobby stayed in touch while she went back and forth between Chattanooga, where her mother was in a nursing home, and Florida. “It just went from there,” she said. “And we’ve been married seven years.”
After college, Bobby went to the Navy and was released from active duty in 1965, but he later served during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm while in the Naval Reserve and then retired as a rear admiral. His two sons, Bob and John, also went to Bright, and he has three granddaughters in Texas. Bobby recently served on the school’s Board of Trustees. Jean was a teacher in Florida and raised two children, Borden and Suzanne.
After Jean’s mother died in 2009, they found letters that Jean had written from a summer camp when she was 13 years old that said, “Bobby has written me twice, but I haven’t heard anything from George,” referring to another classmate, George Elder. “That got us tickled when we found those letters because I had completely forgotten about that,” Jean said. “I was not much of a letter writer and never bothered to write (Bobby) back. I guess the romance stopped abruptly.” Added Bobby: “I guess I saw the writing on the wall.”
Classmates of Bobby and Jean have been intrigued when they learn of their marriage. After all, the odds were not in Bobby’s favor. There were only five girls in the Class of 1953. “They all think it’s interesting that so many years later you get reintroduced,” Bobby said. “They never thought she would marry me. I think that’s probably what they were thinking. Jean was the queen of the class.”
It is fun for them to reminisce about days at Bright School, such as lunch of ground steak and mashed potatoes (which they still like to eat), the picnic, Miss Bright’s brass milk jug, and even Valentine’s Day. “Being Bright School, we brought cards for everyone,” Bobby said. Certainly, that’s to make sure everyone is included, but you never know who your Valentine might turn out to be.