Local Couples Built to Last
A staple of the high school experience is the couples around you that always come and go – from picture-perfect prom dates to breakups in the hallway. While some high school relationships might burn out fast, others prove to be the real deal across the years. Here, we’re featuring six pairs of high school sweethearts who were built to last.
By Anna Hill / Photography by Rich Smith
Trip & Chris Smith (Above)
Graduation Year: 1972
At Girls Preparatory School, if you aren’t dating anyone, it’s up to you to seek out a partner for a dance, and that’s exactly what Chris Smith – then Benz – decided to do. “One of my friends suggested I ask Trip – it was a ‘cold ask,’ because I wasn’t dating anyone at that time. I called him up, and he said he would go. Someone must have tipped him off that I was going to call, because he said yes without asking any questions!” she shares.
Following that school dance, the rest is history. After attending college in different cities, Trip and Chris tied the knot, and after the birth of their third and youngest child, they circled back here to Chattanooga, where Trip owns The Lighting Gallery and Chris serves as the director of the School of Nursing at UTC and Chief Health Affairs Officer on campus. Throughout the years, the two of them have been each other’s rock. “Seriously,” Chris says. “Outside of my parents, brother, and sister, he is the one constant in my life that has not changed in 48 years.”
A popular question that people ask married couples is, “When did you realize they were ‘the one’?” For Trip, that moment occurred sooner rather than later. “By the second date, it just felt right being with her,” he explains. As for Chris, she never had any doubts. “I never thought he wasn’t ‘the one,’” she says of her husband. “It all evolved very easily and naturally over time.” As time has gone by, the Smiths have learned a lot from each other and the bond that they’ve shared. Trip says that it’s really all about compromise. “We have never had a major disagreement. I think that is because we are willing to work through any issues before they became a problem,” he adds.
Trip and Chris have not only learned a lot about each other, but about marriage in general. To younger couples, Chris advises, “If you are not committed to the work of a relationship, you won’t be successful.” According to her, a good relationship is more than just the honeymoon period; it’s compromise and working together, every day. Trip and Chris are a wonderful example of just that.
Mike & Becky Kirk
Graduation Year: 1979 & 1980
For Mike Kirk, it was only natural for Hixson High School to play a major role in his life. He was one of five generations to graduate from Hixson High, and it was there that he met Becky, who’d eventually become his wife. “Mike played basketball, and I thought he was cool,” Becky remembers of their younger years at HHS. The two of them bonded over working together at a local fast food restaurant, and Becky fell in love not only with Mike, but with his fun-loving extended family too. “We were always with one another, and my family loved her,” says Mike. “By late spring of ‘83, I knew.”
After Mike’s time in the military, the pair returned home to Hixson and began to settle down. Mike has spent the last 13 years directing operations in the local private school sector, and Becky has worked with the Tennessee Department of Human Services for over three decades. The couple has two children, and now three grandchildren. “Seeing him become a ‘poppy’ to our grandkids has been the best,” Becky says of her husband.
The Hixson community itself has been a big part of their relationship, as well as their lives in general. “Hixson has been our home, and that was where we wanted to put down our roots and raise our family,” says Becky. Mike has coached for various school and community sports for most of his adult life, and the pair has always been dedicated to raising their children in the spirit of community involvement and connecting with the area around them. “It’s great to know we’ll likely run into somebody we know as we’re out and about,” adds Mike.
Reflecting on their marriage, these two certainly enjoy the view from their current vantage point. “A marriage is like the most terrifying, thrilling, satisfying ride you’ll ever be on,” Mike shares. Through the ups and downs of school, careers, and raising a family, they’ve always had each other to lean on. “A marriage takes time, effort, forgiveness, and love,” Becky explains. Through the good days and bad, their commitment to one another has remained a constant for nearly four decades.
Heath & Ellie Austin
Graduation Year: 2014 & 2015
High school theater can be a lot of things – a community, a creative outlet, a path to stardom – but for Heath and Ellie Austin, it turned out to be a matchmaker. When Ellie’s mother persuaded her to sign up for Chattanooga Christian School’s fall musical, Peter Pan, it just so happened that Heath was working behind the scenes on the tech crew. “It’s interesting because we didn’t actually meet face-to-face, just heard each other’s voices over the intercom,” Heath reveals about the beginning of their friendship-turned-relationship. As both of them stayed involved in the school theater program, their connection grew.
Now that the Austins have tied the knot, they continue to stay involved with their alma mater. Heath and Ellie both work at CCS – Ellie as a theater teacher and director, and Heath as a photographer, videographer, and technical director for their theater productions. Heath says, “With our jobs, we can continue doing the thing that brought us together in the first place. Even if that means painting a set at 10 o’clock at night, there’s no one I’d rather do it with.”
When they’re not working, the duo has loved visiting new and old places together. “Some of my favorite memories include our first family vacations because we got to share memories and traditions,” Ellie explains. “I taught Heath how to ‘beach,’ and he showed me his favorite Disney World spots.” Even now, they look forward to going back to visit and create traditions of their own.
Looking back, Heath and Ellie have found so much value in being together since their high school years. Having love and support during uncertain, transitional times in your life such as going to college, moving away from your parents’ house, and starting a career is something that Heath has deeply appreciated. “It’s so wonderful to have someone you love by your side through all of that,” he says. For Ellie, it’s the opportunity to watch each other grow and change that she cherishes. “We have been able to experience so much together, and we’ve watched each other go through challenges and triumphs that have shaped who we are,” she shares. “It makes me love and appreciate Heath even more, because I know what makes him who he is.”
E. Foster & Natalia Williams
Graduation Year: 1988 & 1989
According to Natalia Williams, when she first noticed E. Foster in the hallways between classes at Brainerd High School, she had to meet him. “On the way to my Spanish class, I’d seen E. Foster walking down the hall and said, ‘He walks with such distinctive confidence and swag.’ Not to mention, he was cute too,” Natalia remembers. “I knew he and a mutual friend, Dedric Bradley, were close, so I pestered Dedric until he finally introduced us.”
Now, E. Foster and Natalia have been married for more than two decades. E. Foster has been a radio personality for over 25 years, and Natalia, who currently works for Cleveland State Community College, has a 25-year career in higher education. Prior to that, they both attended Middle Tennessee State University and were active in their Greek organizations, Kappa Alpha Psi and Alpha Kappa Alpha. According to E. Foster,
sharing their college experience is how he knew Natalia was always going to be his girl. “When she decided to come to MTSU instead of Memphis State, I knew she was the one,” he shares.
The Williamses are both incredibly proud of their son, Errin, who’s currently a junior in college at his parents’ alma mater. For Natalia, one of the things she loves most about E. Foster is his bond with their son. “His awesome, loving relationship with our son is my favorite thing,” she says. “That, and his sense of humor. He constantly keeps me laughing!”
Through the ups and downs, E. Foster and Natalia find joy in their relationship. They keep each other laughing, but they also love being with someone that understands them, through and through. “Something great about being with your high school sweetheart is that time works for you. She really knows who I am and what makes me tick,” E. Foster explains. Natalia also feels that deep appreciation for marrying her high school sweetheart. “I love understanding each other in ways that no one else can, and being able to recapture that feeling of youthful rebellion on a whim,” she says. “It keeps us young!”
Ben & Kaley Strawn
Graduation Year: 2013
Sometimes, you have to break a few rules here and there for the greater good, and that’s exactly what Ben and Kaley Strawn did for their 10th grade Sadie Hawkins dance at Silverdale Baptist Academy. “Ben asked me to go to the dance with him because I was too shy and nervous to ask him, like all the girls were supposed to,” Kaley admits. “I’m really glad he broke the rules in this case.” Now that they’re adults, the Strawns treasure their bond and the fact that they’ve been together since they were teens. “We’ve basically grown up together, and that kind of relationship can’t be matched,” says Ben.
Ben and Kaley both graduated from Lee University in 2017 and now enjoy life together in Cleveland along with their rescue dog, Harry. Outlets for creativity play a big part in their lives – outside of work, Ben loves to write and record music both under his own name and with his band, naavi, and Kaley is a certified yoga instructor. They also love spending time together with their friends and their church community, The Mission Cleveland.
Reflecting on their relationship, this couple emphasizes the importance of friendship as a bedrock. When it comes to finding a life partner, Kaley advises, “It’s really important to choose someone who is your friend. Romance comes and goes throughout a relationship, but having someone who is with you when things are hard and can make you laugh is so valuable.” Naturally, Ben is on the same page. “We truly are best friends,” he says. “As much as we both want alone time at points, our desire to be alone doesn’t last long because we just miss each other’s company.”
Ultimately, Ben and Kaley know that being together over the years has shaped who they are as people, and for the better. About her husband, Kaley shares, “Ben is incredibly kind. He is so slow to anger and judge, and I’ve learned to be a much more understanding person from him.” As for Ben, he feels similarly. “I love pretty much everything about her, to be honest,” he says. “I wouldn’t be anywhere near the person I am today without her.”
John & Amy Haddock
Graduation Year: 1997
John and Amy Haddock may have started dating after the prom in high school, but they’ve actually known each other since elementary school. “John and I met in the second grade,” Amy shares. “We were friends all the way through elementary school and built on that friendship through middle and high school at Baylor.” Though the two parted ways after high school, they always found themselves drawn back together, one way or another.
It didn’t take long after college for both of them to realize they wanted to keep each other around for the long haul. Looking back, Amy remembers, “I had been in a few relationships through college and realized that John was a constant in my life.” The Haddocks started dating again in the summer of 2002 and were engaged at Thanksgiving a few months later.
Now, the two of them are a true power couple. John is the CFO of Transcard and an organizing director for RockPoint Bank, while Amy recently resigned from Morgan Stanley to focus exclusively on her thriving small business selling women’s fashion with Cabi. They also both give back to the school that brought them together by serving as the upper school chairs for the Baylor Annual Fund.
John and Amy enjoy raising their three children on Signal Mountain, where both of them grew up. However, raising three children can get very busy, and they’ve realized the importance of dedicating time to each other as well. “We took a trip for our 10-year anniversary and decided then that we would make an effort to get away for at least a few days each year,” Amy explains. These getaways give them precious time to reconnect and refocus on each other.
In recent years, John has realized that as they’ve grown, they’ve also grown more similar. “In many ways, we are opposites, but over time, I’ve picked up some of her traits and vice versa. In other areas, we balance each other out – a perfect match,” he says. Amy adds that she appreciates that they not only love each other, but share a great friendship as well. “I enjoy laughing with him. I love the fact that he knows the worst parts of me and the best parts of me and loves me just the same,” she says. CS