By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009
The night before his Sept. 5 wedding, all of Hannibal Jackson's groomsmen went out on the town. Jackson returned instead to his hotel room, opened his Bible, and bowed his head.
Prayer brought him to this juncture, Jackson believed, so it would be prayer that ushered him through his last night of single life.
In telling the story of how he came to marry Kellie Williams, the actress who played Laura Winslow in the '90s sitcom "Family Matters," Jackson, 33, starts in October 2001. One Sunday he asked to accompany a co-worker named Rob Brown to church -- "and that," he says, "was the day I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior."
Before that point, the Washington native and George Mason University graduate was doing a lot of running around, dating multiple women, hanging out at clubs, spending money as fast as he made it. An older couple at the church took him under their wing and slowly Jackson became more serious about his faith and future, praying to find a wife "after God's own heart," even as he continued to have trouble with commitment.
Williams, who was born in Forestville and began taking acting classes as a preschooler to overcome shyness, had been living in the public eye in Los Angeles for most of her life. The child actor experience is one "that keeps you young for a very long time," says Williams. She didn't have her first boyfriend until 28. Williams, also a devout Christian, loved acting but decided it wasn't enough -- that "it couldn't be my everything."
In 2003 Williams, also 33, returned to the East Coast and established an arts organization for kids, not unlike the one where she had gotten her start.
For years Jackson and Williams had been listening -- separately -- to Rob Brown and another mutual friend talk about setting them up. The chatter had "gone in one ear and out the other," Williams recalls, until an actual meeting was arranged at a party in August 2007.
Williams walked in, saw Jackson, and received all of a head nod by way of a greeting. "So I said, 'Well, forget him,' " recalls the actress.
The guy sitting next to Jackson nearly passed out with excitement when he recognized Williams from "Family Matters." But Jackson, who runs a government contracting company, had never been a fan of the show; it aired on Friday nights when he was playing football and chasing girls at the mall. "I said, 'Yeah, she's pretty,' " he remembers. "But it takes more than that."
The two did eventually slip into conversation and at the end of the night Jackson asked for her number. A few days later they went jogging. Then there was a trip to Kings Dominion, a Sunday morning at church, a dinner out. They spent more and more time hanging out in person and talking on the phone.
During one such conversation, Williams told Jackson where she stood: "I said, 'You're either my boyfriend, or this is the last time we're going to talk.' " That proclamation came exactly two weeks after they met. "All my friends said the same thing -- 'I can't believe you said that!' " she admits. "But I don't have time to be playing games with people."
In truth, Williams had always envisioned herself as a happy spinster. Marriage was never in her designs, but neither were fleeting relationships that would leave her feeling used.
"I've been treated well by men," she explains. "So I know what I want."
Jackson was stunned by the ultimatum and momentarily flabbergasted. Once he regained his composure and assented, he admitted it was "somewhat of a relief to find a woman who said, 'This is what I want.' "
Williams brought creativity and laughter into his life and within six months Jackson knew what he wanted: to get married.
Now it was Williams's turn to hesitate. The free-spirited artist liked being single -- living by her own whims, flying to Paris at a moment's notice if she felt like it. The prospect of marriage brought on visions of suffocation, especially to a man like Jackson, a logic-driven former military reservist who expected her to show up at 5:45 if they'd agreed to meet somewhere at 6.
"I thought it would kill me -- literally -- if I didn't have the ability to be all over the place," she says. "I thought I would die."
Williams frequently panicked, asking question after question about what life would be like if they married. "I think it helped that I was patient," he says. "I could see that there was some hurt preventing me from getting into her heart the way I wanted to. . . . But I just kept loving her."
After her car broke down and Williams found herself calling Jackson for help, rather than her father, she realized the man she affectionately calls "a square" had already rooted himself in her heart. "I thought about life as a whole and thought, 'What a great person to go along this journey with,' " she says. "I thought, 'I wouldn't want to miss this.' "
When he proposed after 10 months of dating, she said yes. "Because it's a miracle," she explains. "It's not a fairy tale. It's a real guy who's just a great guy."
More than 300 friends and family members, including Williams's former castmate Telma Hopkins, squeezed into the Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington to watch the couple wed. Their spiritual mentors were seated in the front pews with their parents, and Williams's Los Angeles pastor, Kenneth C. Ulmer, flew in to be one of the officiants.
At the sight of his bride, Jackson was overcome and began to cry.
"It was something I had prayed for for so long," he said.