Elizabeth Meltzer had a habit of announcing the arrival of anyone who walked into the athletic director’s office at Lehigh University, where she was an administrative assistant and rowing coach.
“Mike Stagnitta, everybody!” she’d proclaim, as if emceeing a red carpet event.
Stagnitta always smiled bashfully before turning back to his mailbox.
“I thought she was hilarious,” says Stagnitta, who was then Lehigh’s director of sports information. He also thought the 6-foot-8 boyfriend she once brought to a work happy hour seemed like a really nice guy.
“We were more than friendly to each other, but it never crossed my mind to chase her,” he says.
By spring 2007, Meltzer had broken up with her boyfriend of seven years. After several months, she made a decision: “I’m gonna ask someone on a date.”
She marched up to Stagnitta, who is notoriously shy, and invited him to her house for drinks. When he said he couldn’t make it, Meltzer, a Bethesda native who has never been accused of shyness, responded, “You don’t have to come to my house, but you have to promise to take me on a date.”
“He goes, ‘Okay,’ ” she recalls. “And then it’s radio silence.”
Stagnitta was confused and flattered — and seeing someone else at the time. “It was nothing serious at all,” he says. “But I’m big on being faithful.”
Things fizzled with the other woman within weeks, and the text messaging between Meltzer and Stagnitta picked up.
Meltzer invited him over, but, unsure if it was an actual date, asked her male roommate to stick around.
The dynamic confused Stagnitta. When the roommate finally went to bed, he asked plainly, “What is the deal?”
She explained the situation and wondered out loud why he cared. “Why, Mr. Stagnitta,” she said, “are you putting the moves on me?”
“Why, Coach Meltzer, I am,” he responded, then leaned over to kiss her.
Meltzer wanted to go slow, worried she was still on the rebound. For weeks, whenever he stayed overnight they would sleep head-to-head on her L-shaped couch, holding hands in the middle.
Though in many ways she was his opposite, Stagnitta felt he could be himself around Meltzer. “I am a little shy and I’m a little unsure of myself. And when I’m with her, I don’t ever, ever have those feelings,” he says. “She just has a warm presence and makes me feel so relaxed.”
For her, there was something intoxicating about the way he revealed himself. “He would be so quiet with people but then when we were alone it’d be like, ‘Blah, blah, blah, blah,’ ” she says. “It was like, ‘I know a secret Mike, and this secret Mike is so great!’ ”
Meltzer landed the head rowing coach position, and they shifted into busy fall sports seasons, seeing each other in whatever spare time they could find. But that winter Stagnitta, whose father died in 2004, found out his mother had cancer.
In February 2008, she passed away.
“Tell me where you want me to be,” Meltzer said.
“I want you to be right next to me the entire time,” he responded. “As awful as that period was, she made it so much better than it probably should’ve been.”
The tables turned that August when Meltzer learned her uncle had committed suicide. “I just don’t know what I would’ve done without him then,” she says.
“You couldn’t have painted a worse year for us to get together,” he adds. “But we came out roses the other side.”
After a year together, she invited him to move into her house, on the condition that he never move out. “If we’re gonna do this, then you need to be pretty sure,” she said.
He was. And over Thanksgiving weekend in 2009, Stagnitta asked Meltzer’s father for his blessing to propose.
The following Valentine’s Day, Stagnitta got down on one knee before Meltzer. She cried so hard she couldn’t see the ring or remember the proposal, so she made him do it all again.
Later that year, they both found jobs in Washington, he at Catholic University and she at Georgetown. And on Sept. 10 they exchanged vows before 314 guests at the Mellon Auditorium on Constitution Avenue. The hall was dotted with trees bearing twinkling lights and huge arrangements of white flowers. Each table was set with different linens and place settings, some with sparkles, other in metallics. Meltzer, 31, envisioned “a very formal, traditional wedding — but I wanted it to be Gaga too,” she said in reference to her favorite performer. (The couple made their official entrance to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”)
The evening’s biggest surprise, inspired by the movie “Love, Actually,” came immediately after the ceremony when a man popped up from his seat and began singing the Beatles song “All You Need is Love.” Soon, more than a dozen other guests joined in, and as they moved to the center aisle, it became apparent they were professionals who had been planted in the audience. “This is a present from your mom,” the officiant whispered to a stunned Meltzer and Stagnitta.
“I’ve been waiting for you my whole life,” Meltzer told Stagnitta during her vows. “And now that I found you, it’s like you’ve been there all along.”