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On Love

'There's no hesitation; there are no red flags.'

At 38, Earl Stafford Jr. hadn't found the emotional connection from a significant other that he'd always hoped for. Dawn Scott was divorced and wary of dating. But soon, their online correspondence turned into texts, eventually leading to a real life relationship -- and a walk down the aisle.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010

Every once in a while, as he was driving, Earl Stafford Jr. would look over at the passenger's seat and feel a pang of loneliness.

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He'd had several serious relationships throughout his 38 years, including one that produced a daughter, Madelyn, now 11. But none offered the soulful union he dreamed of experiencing. "Who's supposed to be sitting there?" he wondered about the empty space beside him.

After Stafford parted ways with another girlfriend in August 2009, he began spending time on Facebook. Among his nearly 800 friends on the social network was Dawn Scott, who had spent her freshman year at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria. Stafford was a sophomore at Hayfield that year, and though they knew of each other, the two had never spoken.

Scott transferred to Annandale High School the next fall, and in her mid-20s moved to Coral Springs, Fla., where she became a nurse and got married. Five years later, they divorced. Wary of repeat heartache, she dated sporadically but filled much of her free time writing and painting.

Stafford had added Scott to his network at the suggestion of a mutual friend. Clicking through the pictures posted with her profile, he fixated on a painting that Scott had recently completed of a woman with her arms outstretched.

In early September, Stafford sent Scott a Facebook message, saying the piece reminded him of his mother and daughter and asking if she sold her work. After pondering the request for a few days, Scott replied that she usually gave her work only to people she knew well, but in this case she'd make an exception.

Stafford, who helps run his family's faith-based charitable organization, the Stafford Foundation -- made famous when his father, Virginia businessman Earl Stafford Sr., hosted a ball for the disadvantaged in honor of Barack Obama's inauguration -- began making daily visits to Scott's Facebook page. She regularly posted lengthy meditations on life and love, occasionally making reference to a man who intrigued her. Inspired by her musings, he began posting his own poems, including this one:

A boy tries to know themselves; a man tries to know you

A boy reacts; a man is prepared

A boy uses God's name in vain; a man has God's word running thru his veins . . .

"Through status updates -- that's how I was conversing with her," he recalls. And Stafford sometimes suspected Scott's postings were cryptic responses to his, but he couldn't be sure. "It's almost like this creative volley. . . . It was just like, 'Maybe she's writing about me.' "

When the painting hadn't arrived by mid-October, Stafford sent Scott a text message inquiring about its status. "I was like, 'Why is he sending me a text message? We didn't text before. It's something more than just the painting,' " says Scott, 38. She replied that it would be in the mail the next day, but the communication didn't end there.

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