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The Baltimore Sun

Eight years of (e)harmony

There's one strict rule in the Smith household — no fewer than 12 hugs a day.

And Walter and Barbara are only too happy to adhere to this self-imposed dictum.

The couple, both 83, rarely leave their cheerful Newport Beach home without their hands linked. And it's been that way — right down to keeping their arms tightly wound around each other at church — since their first encounter eight years ago on dating website eHarmony.

"I was very active — I still am — but I had to come home to an empty house," said Barbara, whose husband succumbed to Alzheimer's disease in 2000. "I had to climb into an empty bed. And I didn't like that."

For Walter's part, the "wonderful woman" to whom he was married died of breast cancer in 2001.

Although they dated other people before meeting, the pair found that, for one reason or another, those relationships fizzled out. So in the spirit of moving on, they created eHarmony accounts at virtually the same time.

Barbara recalled being impressed by the organization's founder, Dr. Neil Clark Warren. As a clinical psychologist and Christian theologian, Warren expressed concern about the national divorce rate and wanted to provide a program that could lead to lasting and meaningful marriages.

Walter received 48 matches, which he winnowed down to five and then two — that is, until he came across Barbara, who shares a name with his first wife.

"At first, the thing that shocked me to no end was my deceased wife's name," he remarked. "I thought I was in a trance. I got up from the computer, went downstairs, outside and around the house. I walked up and down the street and finally went back and reread it. When I saw she was a retired policewoman, I thought, 'Whooo-ey!'"

Walter, a financial adviser, and Barbara began communicating via eHarmony's mandated questions, but soon that wasn't enough. Their first conversation lasted four hours and was followed quickly by a coffee date.

"Twenty-five years of police work had taught me to read people well, and I knew he was authentic," said Barbara, who cased the selected venue a day before their meeting and located emergency escape routes.

"He came across that room with that big smile and that hand outstretched and I thought, 'Wow, this is one big, damn good-looking man.'"

His simultaneous reaction: "That's my woman."

Keen to get to know each other further, Walter and Barbara picked for their next date Five Crowns Restaurant & Steakhouse, where Barbara devoured her favorite meal, salmon. Two days later, Walter arrived at her doorstep with a cooler full of frozen salmon that he'd caught in Alaska.

"A good fisherman chums, and I'm chumming for you," he told her.

Six days after their first meeting, Walter proposed and Barbara responded, "I'd be honored to be your bride."

eHarmony decided to celebrate the Smiths' union by naming them the Golden Years Couple and giving them a spot on a new float in the 125th Rose Parade in Pasadena on Wednesday. They will join six other couples, each a tribute to the dating service's broad-based compatibility, upon a 55-foot metal structure bedecked with flowers, where Natalie Cole will perform "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)."

"The [parade] theme ["Dreams Come True"] was perfect and is an exact match for what we continue to hear from our couples," said Jaime Rupert, eHarmony's director of corporate communications. "We want to highlight that there is someone for everyone. No matter where you are in life, no matter your situation, there is everlasting love out there for you, and we want to help you find it."

Rupert added that recent research has demonstrated that a third of married couples met their spouses online. It's an increasingly common way to connect, regardless of the participants' age.

"People would be surprised [by] how many seniors are using eHarmony," she said. "We have thousands of seniors on the site. They are encouraged by their children, grandchildren and friends, and it's a great way for them to have vibrant relationships, which are so critical at any stage of life."

Barbara invited two of her three children to dinner, where the news of her imminent nuptials stunned them into silence.

"You've only known him a week," her son Mike said at the time.

Soon after, she introduced Walter to a larger group of family members. They were all seated around a table when he broke the ice by saying, "OK, folks, we all know why we are here. Ask me any questions you want, just don't ask me to not to marry her."

"There was no question in my mind," recalled Walter, who says his favorite thing about his wife is that "she's mine."

Having grown up in the Midwest and of the same generation, Barbara and Walter shake with laughter at their memories of the children's hand game "Tommy Whoop," which they often play. They also stay busy with Masonic, Rotarian, religious, familial and social activities. The duo, committed to always being respectful of each other, share similar values, enjoy old gospel hymns, hardly disagree and complete each other's sentences with surprising regularity.

"She's got me programmed," Walter quipped with a rumbling laugh.

But they almost lost each another — twice.

The couple were planning their marriage when Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer. Knowing that it was the same disease that had sickened his first wife, she decided to free him from the commitment so he wouldn't have to live through the experience again.

"He looked me in the eye and said, 'Don't even think for a minute I would abandon you. We will do this together,'" Barbara recalled, adding that they rejoiced the end of her treatment by driving from the hospital to Las Vegas to play poker.

In 2009, Walter was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic renal cell cancer. While both are cancer-free today, Walter's oncologist told them that his recovery was nothing short of a miracle.

Barbara well understands and is grateful for Walter's recovery but says that for her, the miracle is her husband — with his layer of steel beneath an honest and compassionate exterior — and the love they share.

"My faith tells me that God worked through Dr. Warren's hands to bring us together," Barbara said. "It was to be. I don't know how that works. It's magic, I guess."

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