On Love: ‘You never forget your first love’


Sara Harding and Rob Devlin married July 21 at Fort Belvior. (Mark Gail/FTWP)

Every once in a while, Sara Harding would come across her old yearbooks.

She always flipped to Rob Devlin’s photo first, wondered what had become of him and quietly sent out a prayer that he was happy.

Harding couldn’t believe it when Devlin asked her to be his girlfriend in sixth grade. He was the cutest boy in their Lancaster County school, but quiet and shy, like her. They passed notes in math class and held hands while spinning around the roller rink. He even gave her a gold, heart-shaped necklace.

Then, before the year was out, it ended. His affection had shifted to another girl. Harding returned the necklace, and they rarely spoke throughout the rest of their school careers.

After high school graduation in 1990, Devlin enlisted in the Army, married and had a daughter and son. Harding went to college, did a short stint in the Air Force, married, had two boys and divorced. She settled in Woodbridge and became a third-grade teacher and devoted single mom.


A kiss during the ceremony. (Mark Gail/FTWP)

And whenever she landed on Devlin’s picture in the yearbook, she always felt something spark in her belly. “You never forget your first love,” she says. “I always kind of wished him well . . . but inside there was always a little voice that said, ‘You’re going to marry him one day.’ ”

Harding kept a log of all the guys she went out in the seven years since her divorce. She wrote down their name, occupation, how they’d met, where they went on the date and why she didn’t like him. After No. 62, a retired Navy man she dated for two months in early 2011, she decided she was finished looking for a guy.

“I was content being a single mother,” she recalls. “I loved my job. I had a ton of friends. I have two great kids. I was done.”

So when an old friend from high school, Tim Gochenauer, suggested she send Devlin a Facebook friend request that March, she demurred. “I figured he was married and I wasn’t going to touch that,” she says. “I don’t mess with married men.”

Gochenauer told her that Devlin was recently divorced and nudged Harding repeatedly to get in touch. Devlin, who spent about half of his military career serving overseas, returned from a tour in Afghanistan that spring and started receiving similar messages from Gochenauer.

Devlin remembered Harding fondly, but assumed she wouldn’t even recall his name. “I didn’t think I was anything special,” he says. But in May, he sent Harding a friend request.

She quickly accepted and they began chatting online, catching up about old school memories and the events of their lives after graduation.

Devlin’s divorce had been finalized in January and he was preparing to move from Alabama back to Lancaster County. In June he spent a weekend getting his new house ready and was making the return trip to Alabama when he asked Harding if he could stop in Virginia to meet her for lunch.

Devlin’s nerves bubbled up as he approached the restaurant. “I really don’t like talking — I don’t have lots of words,” he says. “I thought it was going to be a total bomb, where we were just going to stare at each other. But it wasn’t — we just talked and talked and talked.”

They met at noon, spent hours at a restaurant, then walked the Manassas Battlefield and went for ice cream. Devlin finally got back on the road at 8 p.m. and they continued chatting by phone past midnight.

“In sixth grade she was quiet and so was I. But she’s a little bit more of the life of the party now,” he says. “We got along well. I really wanted to come back and see her.”

The following weekend, Harding was moving into a new home she’d just purchased; Devlin promised to make the 13-hour drive to help her. He arrived on Friday night and they spent hours ripping up carpet in the foreclosed townhouse, which had been left in terrible condition.

They worked side-by-side for three days, before Devlin got back in his truck and drove away. Harding was profoundly grateful for his help but didn’t detect any romantic potential. “To me, he was a friend,” she says. “There was nothing more to it.”

But he kept coming back on weekends. And when he didn’t, they spent hours chatting on the phone, often while simultaneously watching the same television shows. Devlin, who rarely watches TV on his own, took that as a sign. “It was a way of spending time with her,” he says. “And I knew there was something more there because I was doing things I don’t normally do.”

Harding was starting to redevelop the old crush she’d had on Devlin. “He was so easy to talk to. I just felt I could share anything with him,” she says. “He made me feel good about myself. And he made me laugh.”

That summer Harding’s older son was enrolled in a Space Camp near Huntsville, Ala. Devlin met them at the hotel where they were staying and spent much of the weekend hanging out at the pool with Harding and the boys. Fearing that Devlin might never make a move, Harding finally popped up from the water and kissed him.

“I’m a little bit slower and maybe a little more old-fashioned about it,” he says. “But it was a very happy surprise.”

After that the relationship quickly turned serious. Harding met Devlin’s children and they began to talk about a future together. In her diary of dates, she put him down as No. 63. Next to his name, she wrote, “He’s the one.”

“I just loved her attitude,” he says. “I always liked her and had feelings for her. And I knew maybe that it was the time. That this was meant to be — it wasn’t meant to be then, but it is now.”

In October, Devlin gathered their friends and families for lunch at a restaurant in Lancaster. He privately asked Harding’s boys for permission to marry their mother, then got down on one knee before the group and proposed to his sixth-grade girlfriend.

On July 21, Harding and Devlin were married in the chapel at Fort Belvoir. All four of their children were in the wedding party, and Harding was escorted down the aisle by her sons.

“I just cannot believe he is my husband. I can’t believe how blessed and lucky I am,” Harding said after the wedding. “I’ve waited a really long time to meet the one. And every time I look at Rob, I fall a little bit more in love. Every time.”

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Ellen McCarthy is a feature writer for Style.
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