When Edward Howard is asked if he recalls the moment he first set eyes on his future bride, his response is immediate.
"Room 1029, 10th floor," said Howard, 37, of their introduction at Harold Washington College in Chicago some 14 years ago. "I saw her in that red dress — wow! — and I wondered, 'How am I going to maintain my professional demeanor?'"
"He was the model college student," recalled his wife, Ashanti Howard, 33. "He shook my hand and looked me in the eye, which was very professional for a young guy."
If not for a fleeting smile he let slip, Ashanti added, she would not have even known she made an impression.
Both were criminal justice students. Edward was president of the college's criminal justice student association. Ashanti became the secretary. The organization gave her a chance, she said, to learn what a "solid work ethic he had" before they started dating.
At that time, marriage was "not even on the radar screen," Edward said. "But after getting to know her, I knew we were going to be together long term."
In fact, before they graduated, he proposed, even though he couldn't afford to buy a ring for a while.
"She said yes anyway," he said.
Ashanti and Edward didn't marry until 2003, the same year she had collected her bachelor's degree in education.
They decided to spend their honeymoon at Disney World, Edward said, because "we were two big, happy kids with money, because by then we had jobs."
Education has continued to be important to both of them. Ashanti earned a master's degree in reading at Chicago State University and is completing her doctorate in educational leadership at Roosevelt University. Edward earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a master's in social work, also at Chicago State.
As the Howards furthered their education and began establishing their careers — he as a social worker for mentally ill adults, she as an assistant school principal for a public elementary school in the Garfield-Humboldt Park community — they tried to start a family.
And here is where the Howards met the kinds of challenges that could undermine any relationship.
After infertility troubles, they endured three rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) — each experience was an emotional roller coaster for both of them.
"We got our hopes up, then it didn't work, then we'd have to start over," Ashanti said.
After the third procedure, Edward said, "No more."
The couple turned to adoption, at first considering the adoption of a foster child they knew.
"We gave it a lot of thought," Ashanti said. "But he was 9, and we were young, so it wasn't a good fit."
Adoptive parents they knew from their church encouraged them to adopt through The Cradle, an agency in Evanston. After they underwent a homestudy (which is required for adoptive parents in Illinois), their file was opened to consideration for birth parents who came to The Cradle seeking adoptive parents.
Five months later, a birth mom chose the Howards, only to change her mind and choose another couple. A second birth mom chose them while she was still pregnant. They waited in anticipation for the baby to be born, only to learn that she decided to keep her baby. A third birth mom chose them, then she, too, changed her mind.
But the ups and downs of IVF and adoption only made them closer, Ashanti said. "It was something that we were going through together," she said. "It was hard, but it was just between us."
And the experience also showed them how they could balance each other, Ashanti added.
"I'm emotional, so each time, I got my hopes up," she said. "But he's so laid-back. He'd say, 'Let's just wait and until we know for sure.' Together, we got through it."
In December 2010, the Howards' counselor at The Cradle called. Another birth mother had selected them to parent her 6-week-old baby. She asked if they could come and pick her up — the next day.
"We had 24 hours," Edward recalled. "We dropped our Christmas shopping and bought baby things because we hadn't known if we should buy pink or blue."
Two days before Christmas, they picked up Katelyn, now 3.
The Howards were the first in their family to adopt a child, so it was unfamiliar territory for the relatives, Ashanti said.
"They had heard adoption horror stories from TV and movies, so they were worried for us," she said. "But they all fell in love with her."
The Howards enjoy an open adoption with Katelyn's birth mother, updating her by email.
"She's grateful for us, and we're grateful for her," Ashanti said. They hope to adopt a second child in 2014.
"Before you adopt through an agency, you have to take a lot of classes, so you have a chance to talk about a lot of parenting issues," Edward said. "The thing I questioned is how I was going to bond with the baby. But after Katelyn was born, she was so tiny and buried herself in my chest when she fell asleep. That was it; we were bonded."
Though the challenges before they became parents strengthened their relationship, becoming parents united them in marriage like nothing else, Ashanti said.
"We told each other, 'There's no turning back now,'" she said.
Now the Howards are speakers at The Cradle's prospective parents meetings, and they mentor other couples in the process of adoption.
"We made it," Ashanti said. "Now we can help other couples through it."
Before Katelyn was born, the Howards had plenty of "couple time," Ashanti said. "We got to know each other well."
Edward learned his wife is unabashedly romantic, keeping the fire alive with small but frequent gestures. "On Sweetest Day, she gave me breakfast in bed with a card that said, 'Pack your bags,'" he said. "She had arranged for us to have a quick getaway."
He has also learned the extent of her compassion for the less fortunate, he added. "I can't tell you how many times she called me to ask me to pick up a belt for one kid or a coat for another one," he said of his wife's students.
Ashanti learned that Edward is the gentleman her first impression suggested. "He's smart and beyond loyal," she said. "He's sensitive, too, but that's a side other people don't see."
In addition to family time, each spouse maintains relationships with peers. As an alumna of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, Ashanti helps raise money for scholarships. She leads a Girl Scout troop with fellow church members and enjoys the camaraderie of other moms in a chapter of MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) International.
Edward is the co-director of a mentoring program for teenage boys. "We teach them life skills like financial literacy," he said. Once a month, he kicks back with a group of fathers of daughters. "As the girls get older, we trade tips about what to do next," he said.
Thirty years from now, the Howards envision being retired, with grown children and some grandchildren.
"I hope to be relaxing on a beach," Edward said. "Ashanti? She'll be snuggled right up next to me."
"I grew up with a strong mom, but she was a single parent," Edward Howard said. "I knew I wanted to be a good husband and father. We try to show Katelyn what a loving couple is. Just the daily kisses or hugs or taking care of each other; that's our marriage, and our daughter sees that."