Santa and the cheerleader

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If anyone had told Kristi Aten she would grow up to marry the boy who played Santa Claus in her elementary school play, she never would have believed them. Kristi barely knew Chris Rizzo though they were both raised in Pasadena in Anne Arundel County and attended Lake Shore Elementary, Chesapeake Bay Middle and Chesapeake High schools together. Chris was two grades ahead of Kristi.

Kristi, 24, and Chris, 27, also went to Towson University at the same time, from 1994 to 1996. It wasn't until a year later, though, in 1997, that the two were formally introduced at a mutual friend's college graduation party.

Kristi remembered Chris from that starring role in the school play, mainly because young Chris couldn't keep his red hair from peeking out from under Santa's white wig.

Chris recalled Kristi as a pretty sophomore cheerleader, cheering on Chesapeake's soccer and basketball teams. Chris played on both teams in his senior year.

After the party, Chris got Kristi's telephone number. He called her a few days later, but she had a date, and she never called him back.

Later that summer, Kristi began hanging around with an old high school friend who was also a former cheerleader. They kept running into Chris and other Chesapeake High alumni at local nightspots.

Though he initially gave Kristi grief about not returning his call, Chris didn't make an issue of it. By the end of July, after seeing and talking to Chris at various social gatherings, Kristi says she realized she should have returned his call.

In addition to their common backgrounds and mutual friends, Chris and Kristi were both pursuing careers in education. Chris had graduated from Towson with a bachelor's degree in English. Kristi was finishing her course work for a degree in early-childhood education.

They went on their first date that August and began spending a lot of time together.

"We said we were taking it slow," Kristi says, "but we saw each other just about every night."

In September, Chris moved to Easton to teach in Caroline County. Kristi visited almost every weekend. When she graduated in December, she took a job teaching in Queen Anne's County and moved to Easton with Chris.

Kristi had trouble adjusting to the slower pace on the Eastern Shore. She likes to be "in the middle of all the action," Chris says. And they both missed their families and friends in Pasadena. So they decided to move back across the Bay Bridge.

In September 1998, Chris was hired as a computer technician and trainer for a Hunt Valley firm that produces software for dentists.

The couple moved into an apartment in Towson. Kristi found a position as an elementary school teacher. (She currently teaches fourth grade at Featherbed Lane Elementary School in Baltimore County.)

They had talked about marriage once and found it a difficult subject. "It made us both nervous," she says. But in the fall of 1998, they took up the topic again.

Last summer, on the same day the couple finalized the purchase of a townhouse in Owings Mills, Chris proposed. He presented the engagement ring Kristi had chosen on a bed of rose petals plucked from flowers on the bushes outside their new home.

On Aug. 12, Kristi and Chris were married where they had grown up without really knowing each other -- in Pasadena. The ceremony was held in a gazebo at Kurtz's Beach overlooking the Chesapeake Bay as the sun set.

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