Sandra Smith was starting her first day as a sales trader in Chicago.
Leaving her second post-college job at a hedge fund in New York, she was back in the city where she grew up and where several members of her family had worked in the financial trading community.
The head of the firm escorted Sandra, then 23, around the male-dominated trade desk, introducing her.
"As we made our way around to the last person on the desk, there was John, the only person paying me no attention," Sandra said. "When prodded, the tall, bow tie-wearing, wavy-haired, nerdy but handsome guy turned around, smiled and introduced himself."
As the story was told on their wedding day, "I knew right then that she was the girl I was going to marry," John Conolly, then 35, recalled thinking.
But in the first chapter of their two ships almost passing in life, Sandra's first two weeks on the job were John's last two. He was leaving to start his own business.
"After a few days on the job," Sandra said, "I was eating my lunch on the trade desk and looked up at the TV screen and noticed there was something very familiar about the guy providing commentary on the financial television program. He had on a bow tie. I turned to look at John's desk — empty. I looked back up and asked the guys on the desk if that was him."
It was. When John returned to the office, she asked him about it. He invited her to try taping a TV spot at First Business News at CME Group, which owns the group of commodities exchanges, including the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade and the New York Mercantile Exchange.
"She was very nervous," he said.
"He coached me through it," she said.
After John left the firm, Sandra was asked to take over his role of providing the firm's TV commentary.
One afternoon a couple of weeks after the TV appearance, she picked up the keys to what she called her new "apartment in the sky" overlooking DuSable Harbor.
"There wasn't yet a piece of furniture or a single dish moved in, but I was excited to share the change with someone special," Sandra said. "Our relationship was still just professional, but John, or Conolly as I called him, came to mind."
"This is working better than I expected," a smiling John recalls thinking when she called him to check out the place. "There was a bodega in the basement that happened to have a bottle of really overpriced Veuve Clicquot and a sleeve of plastic champagne glasses."
Their first date followed, at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Then the second — with his mom and stepdad and Sandra's cousins — for a preview of a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
"John graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as a painter. He was also a very competitive sailor at the time and took me sailing on several of our initial dates," Sandra said. "He was challenging me; I wasn't going sailing and to art shows when I met him."
As they became a couple, he invited her on a business trip to Beaver Creek, Colo. She had skied only a handful of times before but again welcomed his coaching.
"Sandra is an ultracompetitive person," John said. "She ran track at Louisiana State University. So I never introduced her to the shallow end. I introduced her to the deep end."
The age difference gave neither of them much pause.
"Obviously, I did a little research on him when we started dating; everybody does," Sandra, now 32, said with a smile. "He hadn't been dating a lot. I reaped the benefits of that. He gained all these other experiences — traveling, working. I don't think I would have gotten all of John Conolly if I hadn't met him at that time in his life."
"I was actively looking but wasn't actively finding," John, now 44, clarifies. "There was a risk in waiting, but for me it was do it right or not at all."
About a year and a half and many TV appearances later, Sandra was offered a job with Bloomberg Television in New York, leading to chapter two of their ships almost passing.
"Thus began our long-distance relationship," she said. "I was on a plane almost every Friday night. Flight delays, snowy weather, tight time schedules made it very challenging. But not once did John complain. He has always been so supportive of my career and goals. He fell in love with my family, and I his. We'd see friends. We'd go to church on Sunday. I was still a lector at Holy Name. There was a lot to squeeze in."
After she spent about a year at Bloomberg TV, Fox Business came calling, hiring her as an on-air reporter.
"It appeared I would be in New York indefinitely," she said. Another challenge.
Even so, John said, "We had a vision of what the goal is and the desire to see it through to completion."
After she was at Fox for a couple of years, Sandra and John married May 1, 2010, at Holy Name Cathedral. She continued working in New York and John in Chicago until January 2011, when he transferred most of his work life to New York. He had sold his business and became director of product marketing for CME Group.
"And we were finally together," Sandra said. With homes in both cities, they typically fly together, spending one week a month, plus the weekends on either side, in Chicago. Now they are expecting their first child, a girl, on their wedding anniversary. This month they settle in for the birth and maternity leave here. And then?
"There are ways to make this work," Sandra said. "Family is very important to us. Career is very important to us. I don't see that changing. If anything, having a child will inspire us to be even better."
John said, though, that they're nearing "terminal velocity," with at least one change of address coming in the next two years or so. "I'm pretty adamant about kids having their own backyard," he said. "I'm the long-term planner."
"What I tell most of my buddies is, don't look for somebody.
Go do something. And be outstanding at it."
— John ConollyCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun