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A match made in ... heaven?

The first thing Wendell F. Phillips and Ruth Gilliam will tell you about their relationship is that it was their fathers who brought them together. It takes the couple a while longer to mention that their dads were already gone from this Earth when they made the match.

Ruth and Wendell's story starts back in 1987 when they were both students at Morgan State University. Wendell, who had been noticing Ruth for weeks, finally spotted her eating alone one afternoon. Seizing his moment, he sat directly in front of her. "Hello. My name is Wendell," he said with a smile.

"He had the prettiest smile and he was so nice," Ruth recalls. But she was engaged and Wendell had a girlfriend, so the spark that might've led to something larger fizzled.

Though Wendell and Ruth had mutual friends and sometimes heard news of each other, once they left Morgan, life took them on separate paths. From 1991 until 1997, Ruth didn't even live in Baltimore.

In January 1993, Wendell's father, the well-known clergyman and politician Wendell H. Phillips, died unexpectedly. Ruth, who hadn't spoken to Wendell in years, called to offer her condolences. Then she and Wendell didn't speak again until January 1996, when Ruth's father, Ulysses Gilliam, passed away after a long illness.

Wendell remembers the strong urge he had to go to Ruth. He felt compelled to comfort her in a way he can't explain even now. "I was bound and determined to find her," he says. He saw Ruth at the funeral home and was able to speak to her.

When he tapped her on the shoulder, Ruth was surprised at her response to the friendly gesture. "At that very moment, as God is my witness, I knew I was going to marry that man," Ruth says.

Long single, Ruth knew her father was worried when he died because she was not married. Once she turned 30, she and her father talked openly about the subject. "He always said, 'You'll just know when the person is right for you. You'll just know,' " Ruth says.

But Ruth never really believed him. Until that fateful afternoon when, she firmly believes, God and her father teamed up to bring Wendell back into her life.

After the funeral, Ruth briefly went back to Philadelphia (where she was living at the time) and then returned to Baltimore to help her sisters sort through her father's belongings.

Wendell helped the women pack things up. He also offered his shoulder to Ruth and found comfort of his own. "It was the first time I was ever able to see any good in my father's passing," he says, meaning he was able to draw on his own experience with grief to help her.

He and Ruth began dating and in June 1997 he helped her move home to Baltimore to live with her mother, Gloria Gilliam.

Wendell, 34, is the new House of Delegates member from Baltimore's 41st District - a seat his late father won 20 years ago and held for two terms.

When Wendell decided to run for office last year, he first ran his plans past his two toughest critics (and biggest supporters) - his mother, Dorothy A. Phillips, and Ruth. Though he was tied emotionally to the seat his father held for two terms, he says he really wanted to leave his own mark on the city.

As for Ruth, she learned the meaning of true love on the campaign trail. "I knew I really loved him when I was out there in 95-degree weather knocking on doors, saying 'Vote for Wendell Phillips,' " she says with a laugh. Ruth, 35, has her own career as a podiatrist.

Wendell proposed last October - before he won his General Assembly seat. On Dec. 26, he and Ruth were married at the Baltimore church he has attended his entire life, and where his late father was the longtime pastor - Heritage United Church of Christ. Wendell's uncles, the Rev. F. Allison Phillips and the Rev. W. Sterling Cary, were among the officiants.

Among the 454 guests were Ruth's grandparents, James and Furnell Perkins, and Wendell's grandmother, Cecile Harris.

The wedding program included pictures of Ruth and Wendell's fathers. The couple also paid tribute to the two men whom they believe brought them together by lighting candles in their memory.

"Out of their deaths came this light," Wendell explains.

"I know they're looking down and they're happy," Ruth says, clasping Wendell's hand in hers as they share a tender smile.

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