Last Valentine’s Day, when we could still gather in public, the team behind Date Lab hosted a live Q&A session and dating game show for 500 attendees at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. An hour before we went onstage, our emcee, Tanya Ballard Brown, said she wanted me to give the audience an update about one of our rare success stories: Willie Gray and Renee Coley.

They had met one year earlier, on Valentine’s Day 2019, on a date where everything seemed to go right. As our photographer took their photo, the two pretended to slow dance. Willie dipped Renee and she kicked up her leg, surprising them both and making them laugh. Over small plates, Renee talked about her love for food and Willie talked about his love for cooking.

I realized they were going places when Renee revealed to me that she and Willie were texting during our post-date interview. A few weeks later, Willie messaged to let me know they were officially a couple. In the comments section of their story, readers seemed pleased that we’d gotten it right for once.

When Tanya asked me how they were doing a year later, I didn’t know. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Their story had been such a lovely one. Why ruin it by finding out that it had fallen apart? That was a bad reason not to reach out. So, an hour before the event, I texted Willie and asked for an update. I didn’t hear back.

But then, as I was watching people file into the hall, I spotted some familiar faces: Renee and Willie!

They’d come to surprise us — on their one-year anniversary. When an audience member asked during the panel why Date Lab has such a low success rate — a good question, but we’ll save it for another time — I invited the two to stand up. They were greeted with a warm round of applause. It’s one of my favorite memories from the Before Times.

With their two-year anniversary approaching, it seemed like a good moment for an update. So, how are they doing?

“It’s been terrific. He is such a wonderful man,” Renee, now 55, said of the man she calls Tony. (We didn’t know when we set them up that her dad and brother are named Willie and so is his dad, so Renee calls him by his middle name.) “It just feels like I’ve known him all my life.”

“She’s still my girl,” said Willie, now 58. “Every time we get together, I love to see her. We talk every day.”

After their first date, Willie had to leave town to visit family, but he and Renee kept texting. When he got back, they made plans for him to cook dinner for her that weekend. But when the government closed for snow during the week, Willie, a government contractor, asked Renee, a federal employee, on a snow day date. He picked her up in his truck, and they went to a matinee at an empty movie theater. That weekend, Willie made prime rib, which Renee said was the best she’s ever had.

Soon they were talking every day. Renee would text Willie when she got to work each morning at 5:30 a.m., and on weekends they’d get together. They attended soccer, hockey, baseball and basketball games, saw movies and went to the circus. They’d take the Metro into the city for dim sum and Ethiopian food — often getting off at the wrong stop and enjoying the long walks to the restaurant. They traveled in 2019, too: weekend beach getaways and a trip to Jamaica for Renee’s birthday. For Christmas, she gifted Willie a trip to Dallas to see the Cowboys (his favorite) play the Washington Football Team. They went to Nashville for New Year’s Eve.

“Things have just fallen into place with them,” said Robin Browne, Renee’s friend of more than 20 years, who has spent a lot of time with the couple. “They both seem very happy.”

I asked Willie and Renee why they thought the relationship worked. For Willie, it was Renee’s personality. “She’s a very generous person, very kind, very loving, very headstrong,” Willie said. “She’s a good partner. She’s affectionate and just a good person to be around. She keeps you motivated.”

For Renee, it’s Willie’s unconditional care and support. She mentioned a time, not long into their relationship, when he surprised her by picking her up at the airport after a long, stressful day of travel. Or when he cuts her grass without her asking. “I’m the type of person to hate to ask people to do stuff for me,” she said. “I just love that he will just do stuff without me having to ask him and not complain about it or anything. If I ever need him, I’ll call him and he’ll come help me.”

They’ve been there for each other in hard times, too. When Willie’s mother died, Renee accompanied him to the funeral. And while the pandemic has been difficult on everyone, Renee, who loves to travel and hates being cooped up alone in her house, was having a hard time at first. When she made a half-joking comment about how she was starting to talk to herself, Willie made sure to check up on her more often and visit when she was getting lonely.

After their first date, Willie recounted a conversation they’d had about commitment. He said he wasn’t sure he wanted to get married again. Renee said she was looking for a committed relationship, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to get married either. He liked that — it sounded like they were on the same page. I asked Renee if that had changed in the two years since they met. It was clear they hadn’t talked about it since the beginning of their relationship.

“I don’t know. I think I have backed off of that, and that’s really surprising to me that I even can say that!” she laughed. “He has made me revisit that whole idea of remarrying.”

When I asked Willie, he became contemplative. “I’m not against marriage,” he said, sounding like he was articulating something that he’s thought about but never quite said out loud. “It could be an option.” In the next few years, he said, he’d probably downsize and the two would move in together. “Once we’re cohabiting in one place, I think that would be the next move that logically would happen. I could see it happening.” He couldn’t imagine moving in and not having some kind of symbol of their relationship — maybe a ring or something else if she didn’t want to get married.

“If the situation presented itself, I would not have any problems with that because I definitely see us together for the long term. … I wouldn’t mind being married to him,” Renee said. But, she said, marriage isn’t necessarily the end goal. “Right now, I’m enjoying this too,” she said. “So either way, I’m good.”

Renee and Willie will be joining our virtual Date Lab event Feb. 12 at 5 p.m. Register at and tune in for a live Q&A with the happy couple.

Marin Cogan is a writer based in Washington.