Love Notes: Mike and Michele Schaffer

Mike, Michele and Michael Schaffer pose for a portrait Wednesday, Nov. 6 at Brunswick Zone bowling alley in River Grove, Il. Michele, a first grade teacher, met Mike through his then-first-grade son, Michael, eight years ago. The couple had their first date at the bowling alley. (Genna Ord, Chicago Tribune / November 5, 2013)

When Mike Schaffer walked down the halls of Mater Christi Catholic school in North Riverside escorting his son, Michael, to his kindergarten class, he made an impression on first-grade teacher Michele Cargola.

"They were so cute together," Michele said, "and I thought, 'Oh, that's such a handsome dad.' "

It was early 2004. Michele was 32 and had never been married. Mike, recently divorced, was 42.

A few months passed. Michele was having coffee with a friend at Panera Bread in River Forest when she saw Mike behind the counter.

Mike had recently relocated to North Riverside from Kenosha, Wis., with Michael, and was working as a manager at the restaurant.

"I spent that whole school year with a ridiculous crush on him," Michele said.

"I was clueless," Mike admitted.

Fortunately, the frequency of their conversations increased when Michele became Michael's first-grade teacher that fall.

"I was really growing fond of Michael," Michele recalled, "and he started saying things like, 'Maybe you can come over to our house for pizza with my dad?' "

Mike and Michele started sharing long chats — either after school or during Michele's coffee visits to Panera. While they always kept their relationship in the "friends zone," Michele's attraction continued to accelerate.

"I remember I was with my mom at the pancake breakfast at school in the spring (2005) and she saw Mike there and she said, 'I know that guy from somewhere.' So the very next day, my mom called me and she said, 'You'll never guess who's sitting in the waiting room. That guy that we saw at the pancake breakfast!' "

It turned out that Mike was a patient at the doctor's office where Michele's mom was working.

"So I put my mom on the case to see if he was dating anyone," Michele said.

"Her mom was asking me questions whenever I went to the doctor, trying to gently find things out," Mike said. "I was working so much and taking care of Michael, so I wasn't dating."

The school year ended on a somber note for students and staff when Mater Christi closed its doors in June 2005 because of low enrollment. Michele gave all of her students her phone number and email address to keep in touch, so Mike had his son call and ask Michele if she wanted to join them for pizza and bowling.

"I wasn't sure if she was interested in me as more than a friend," Mike said. "I figured with Michael calling, it was safe and that way if it was just a teacher-student thing it would be fine. If it's something more — that's fine. I'm trying to figure it out. So I had my first-grader do the work!"

For the next couple of months, Mike, Michele and Michael spent a lot of time together. Until one day, Mike decided to ask just Michele on a date.

Mike thought it went well, until it was time to say good night.

"I brought her home and I thought it was strange that she didn't ask me in," he said. "Her uncle was sitting on the porch. I figured she'd introduce me, (but) she just jumped out of the car."

"I was so nervous," Michele said.