Knowing when to pop the question

A surprise sprung on shoestring. Another orchestrated at 30,000 feet with a crew of flight attendant co-conspirators. And a couple of conclusions reached jointly, wordlessly — and no less romantically.

Just in time for Valentine's Day, we asked a handful of well-known Maryland couples how they got engaged.

They are Dr. Robert A. Montgomery, ground-breaking kidney transplant surgeon, and his wife, opera star Denyce Graves; Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein and his wife, Sheryl Goldstein, director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice; Dr. Benjamin S. Carson, the renowned pediatric neurosurgeon, and his wife, Candy, co-founder and executive secretary for Carson Scholars Fund; and Bill and Nancy Devine, owners of Faidley's Seafood in Lexington Market.

Whether on bended knee or behind the wheel, amid the glamour of world travel or the terror of a highway near-miss, on the eve of a foot race or between military deployments, these four couples came to the same conclusion: It was time to get hitched.

Coming to the same conclusion

Ask Ben Carson how he and Candy Rustin got engaged, and you get a story that sounds like it might end on the operating table, not at the altar. The tale begins in the 1970s, when he was a senior at Yale and she was a sophomore.

"We were both from Detroit, but we had to go to Connecticut to meet each other at Yale," said Carson, 59, of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "We were both from families without much in the way of finances, and we wanted to come home for Thanksgiving. The school would pay your way home if we would do some recruiting for them. So we went on their dime, we got a chance to go out to restaurants and do things we normally would not ever have the chance to do. We began to start having some feelings for each other."

When their weeklong visit to Detroit was over, they headed back to Yale by rental car.

"We had been in Ann Arbor the night before. Probably stayed up later than we should have. We were going to drive all night to get back the next day. She was going to help keep me awake. That didn't work very well."

Candy was soon sound asleep. And by the time they hit Youngstown, Ohio, on Interstate 80, Carson was nodding off.

"I fell asleep at 90 miles an hour and was awakened by the vibrations of the car as it was going off the road, heading off into a ravine," he said. "I grabbed the wheel, and it just started spinning. They say your life flashes before your eyes, and it's true. I saw all these scenes from my life and I thought, 'I'm gonna die.' And it just stopped on the shoulder, just in time before an 18-wheeler barreled by. And Candy awakened and said, 'What happened?' and I said, 'Nothing.'"

Of course, she knew better.

"I explained what happened, and we said, 'You know what? God spared our lives because he wants us to do something.' And that was the first time we kissed each other, and we started going together at that moment. … We were basically inseparable from that point on in school, and after I left to go to medical school at the University of Michigan, we wrote letters to each other every day. And we would call whenever we could. One evening we had a six-hour phone call. We never got billed for it. We were dreading it."

More divine intervention?

"Probably they looked at it and said, 'This is a mistake.'"

Candy graduated from Yale in June 1975, and they were married that July.

So when did the question actually get popped?

"It wasn't sort of a, 'Will you marry me?' It was more of a, 'When do you think we should get married?'"

Without saying as much, right there in the car on Interstate 80, they both concluded they'd spend their lives together.

"We knew," Carson said. "It was never in doubt after that day."

Long-distance love

Before they were Baltimore's crime-fighting duo, State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein and mayoral criminal justice guru Sheryl Goldstein were a romantic duo.

Then they weren't. And then they were again.

The two dated "on and off for a period of time," Goldstein recalled. Theirs was a long-distance relationship at some points, as Goldstein moved between jobs in Baltimore and New York.

She was back in Baltimore and back with Bernstein in November 2002, when they were heading to New York City to run the marathon.

"I had run the New York marathon, and he wanted to run it," Goldstein said. "We signed up and trained."

Two nights before the race, as they packed for their trip to New York, Goldstein picked up her Adidas and spotted something sparkly on the laces.

"He laced my engagement ring in my running shoe," she said.

They were married in March 2003.

As for the race, Goldstein, now 44, finished in about 3 hours, 45 minutes and Bernstein, 55, in about 4 hours, 5 minutes.

"Gregg often jokes that even the ring didn't keep me from leaving him in the dust," Goldstein said.

A quick decision

Bill Devine is fond of telling any crab cake customer who asks that he's not the owner of Faidley's.

"I sleep with the owner," he'll say.

Devine and Nancy Faidley met back in 1958. She was a blind date, a schoolteacher in Halethorpe whose family had a fish business, billed by the guy who fixed them up as a "good-looking blond Catholic girl."

He was a naval officer in Norfolk, Va., just back on base after six months in the Mediterranean. He was willing to drive to Baltimore, in bad weather, for a date.

"Came up in a blinding snowstorm in mid-March," recalled Devine, 78.

It was worth the trip.

"We hadn't been dating two weeks when we decided" to get married, he said.

There was no formal proposal, no getting down on one knee. Just a near-instant understanding between them that they were meant for each other.

"It was a mutual decision, 'Hey, why don't we do this?'" he said. "I guess when you know, you know."

Devine shipped out that June 1 for 60 days and got back two days before their wedding, which took place Aug. 16. Toward the end of his tour, he was able to call Nancy, now 74, from sea.

"You had to go down to the radio shack and call into Boston," he said. "She answered the phone. I said, "We still getting married?' and she said, 'Who's calling?'"

Love is in the air

Dr. Robert Montgomery, Hopkins transplant star, and Denyce Graves, international opera star, met on an airplane in 2008.

And when they got married in 2009, airplanes played a role in all three of the ceremonies they threw themselves: Tiny airplanes decorated the cake they had back at the house after a ceremony for a handful of family and friends; an airplane hangar was the scene of a rehearsal dinner before their huge wedding at Washington's National Cathedral; and there was a flight to Kenya for a traditional Masai ceremony.

So, naturally, the proposal that came in between the meeting and the weddings also unfolded on a plane. Graves, a mezzo soprano, had just finished a show with the Washington Opera and was tagging along with Montgomery to Venice, where he had a speaking engagement.

"When I got on the airplane, I got all the flight attendants involved, and one of the pilots, and told them I was going to propose to her," he said. "I lined things up so [one of the attendants] would bring the ring on her dinner tray. … Somewhere over the Atlantic, they brought her tray out and it was a little box on the edge of the tray. She didn't react in any way. She thought it was a box of chocolates or something."

And Graves was not in the mood for chocolate.

"The flight attendants were very excited, and they kept coming by, 'How's your dinner?' She thought that was very odd."

Montgomery, too, seemed to be unduly interested in her meal, as he inquired not only about the box but everything else on her tray so as not to arouse suspicion.

"'Honey, do you like your salad dressing?'" Graves recalled him asking. "'Well, yeah, it's fine.' And he said, 'Is that a salad?' Just really bizarre. He just wanted to engage me. I said, 'Honey, everything is fine.' And then the stewardess kept walking up and down, more than normally and kept saying, 'Is everything OK?'

" 'What's going on with everybody?'" she wondered.

With the meal over and the box still unopened, Montgomery, now 51, made a final try.

"They got ready to clear her tray," he said. "'Well, don't you want to open that box up?' So she finally opened it up and I got down on one knee in the aisle. Thank goodness there wasn't turbulence at the time."

"It was a gorgeous moment," Graves said. "It was a moment that really, really knocked my socks off."

After the proposal was made and accepted, a flight attendant announced the news to the other passengers, who burst into applause.

"We had the most incredible time, and they opened a bottle of Champagne," he said. "We got to Venice, and we didn't want to get off the plane we were having such a good time."

laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

More love stories

Some Baltimore Sun readers also shared their stories of love with us. Watch these couples talk about how they fell in love baltimoresun.com/valentines.

•Rie Sadler and Jim Jones share a love for each other and for ghost hunting. A radio show, a chat room and a paranormal investigation brought them together. Their first date was checking out haunted places in Baltimore County.

•Kate Hendrickson and Tom Rowe are well-known in Baltimore's social media scene. Tom courted her via Twitter and Facebook, where, he says, he is at his most charming. Not even his Spiderman sheets could keep them apart.

•Tif Saleem tried wooing Kalanit for years. A poetry event, phone calls, text messages and the Ravens winning the Super Bowl weren't enough to jumpstart the relationship. A worldwide search for a rare flower that only grows in Israel and a bit of luck on Valentine's Day led this Baltimore couple to a happy ending.

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