How they met: Relationship cleared for takeoff

News-DemocratFebruary 9, 2014 

Strangers thought Mark and Paula Semko, of Swansea, were a match before they did.

They met June 7, 1985, in a crowded gate area at Lambert Airport.

Paula had finished her first year of teaching second grade in Urbana and was waiting to catch a flight to Houston for her brother's wedding.

"I was determined to find a seat," she said."I noticed one seat between two guys and decided that was the place for me."

Mark, the guy on the left, had a honest face, so she left her bags with him.

"When I returned with my chocolate chip mint ice cream cone, I thanked him.I noticed he was clean cut and rather handsome. I figured he was military or a banker."

She asked him why the gate area was so crowded.

They talked more than two hours because the plane was having mechanical problems. Mark, an engineer living in Belleville, also was on the way to a wedding in Houston.

"I looked on his left hand to see if there was a ring and noticed there was not, but I knew I had to be sure. ... I asked him where he and his wife went for entertainment in St. Louis.He told me that he wasn't married. I said, 'Oh, that's too bad.'"

Mark knew Paula was flirting, but didn't mind.

"I just thought it was someone being friendly," Mark said.

"It felt like we had known each other for years," she said.

He was 27. She had just turned 23.

Fellow passengers thought they were married.

"A lady across from us was playing with her baby and asked us how long we had been married," said Paula."I said, "We aren't married, I just met this guy.He wouldn't want to marry me."

Mark said, "I don't know about that."

They were seated apart on the plane, Mark near the front and Paula midway back. "The lady I sat next to asked me why I wasn't sitting next to my husband. I told her the story. She just laughed."

After the plane landed, Mark and Paulaexchanged business cards. And soon were exchanging letters.

"I cherish those letters," said Paula, picking up one with Mark's neat printing. "It took him until November to get up the courage to call me and take me out. I made it easy for him. I invited him to Champaign for my faculty Christmas party."

Their first date was Dec 14, 1985.

She had booked reservations for him at Holiday Inn.

"I couldn't remember what he looked like specifically," she said. "Six months had passed."

Mark was so clean cut and wore such nice shoes that Paula and her roommate invited him to sleep on their couch.

"My roommate was a fashion diva. She noticed he was a guy who knows proper footwear. We are still best friends. She is our kids' Aunt Shelly."

The girls woke up the next morning to find Mark rearranging the ornaments on their Christmas tree.

"He found scissors and was snipping branches."

"I wake up early," said Mark. "They were a couple of sleepyheads."

He followed up by sending her a dozen red roses.

They were engaged by March and married on Feb. 7, 1987. Paul found a teaching job in Belleville and moved the August before their wedding.

"I had always prayed to the Blessed Mother that she would bring me to my husband when the time was right," said Paula, now an early education developmental therapist."She didn't let me down."

The Semkos live in a two-story home that reflects their interests. Family photos decorate walls. Their daughterElizabeth, a dancer, is a junior at SIUE studying journalism. Son Scott is a sophomore at Althoff who likes sports.

Mark and Paula celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary this weekend.

"Our son has a basketball game that night," Paula said earlier in the week,"and Saturday we are going out to dinner someplace special. We want to be with our kids. We know our days with them are numbered."

The Semkos also celebrate June 7, the day they met, and Dec. 14, the day of their first date.

"I always tell my single friends to be on the lookout when they are at the airport," said Paula. "You never know."

Mark, who grew up in New Jersey, had lived in the Midwest since 1970. When he met Paula, he was working at the refinery in Roxana.

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