Luke Eckert liked Erika Roche in middle school.
“It started with him writing me notes and leaving them on my seat before I got in the classroom,” said Erika, 25, of Belleville, who attended Central Junior High. “They were unsigned like a junior-high boy would do. They would be about how I looked that day. Or about something I said or did.”
Was she flattered?
“I ignored them. I eventually found out it was him. He was very shy. He was too scared to talk to me.”
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Luke, also 25, remembered Erika as smart and athletic. She played soccer, volleyball and basketball and ran track.
“I was the only 220-pound eighth-grader at Central,” said Luke, exaggerating just a bit. “I played basketball, but spent more time on the bench. I was doing stuff with Boy Scouts or talking my parents out of going to school to let me go hunting.”
After grade school, Erika went to Belleville East. Luke headed to Belleville West. They both graduated in 2009. A mutual friend kept them in touch. Then, she went off to college at Eastern Illinois in Charleston. He went to trade school to become a carpenter.
But he never gave up.
“Luke knew they were a match made in heaven,” said their friend, Anna Grimm, 26, of Belleville, “but believing he was way out of Erika’s league, he never pursued her. Luke was always just the sweet friend.
“When Erika was a senior at Eastern university, she told some of her friends about a guy she went to junior high with who was constantly texting her, wondering how she was and when she would be back home to hang out. Her friends kept cheering Luke on — we knew he was a keeper when he sent her and her roommates Ted Drewes’ (ice cream) to get through finals.”
But that wasn’t all Luke did.
“For Christmas (2013, her last year of college), he gave me a digital photo frame,” said Erika. “Three hundred pictures of sunrises and sunsets. I was always up early in the morning finishing last-minute stuff. He was up. He had to be at work at 6 or 7. He took the photos. It was adorable. All my friends totally loved Luke before I knew I did. They would say, ‘Hey, when are you gong to go out with this guy?’”
“I do lot of hunting,” said Luke. “I spend a lot of time outside at the beginning of the day duck hunting, sitting in a deer stand, or some combination of the two. I took pictures every day I hunted for two or three years.”
For Erika’s Dec. 27 birthday that year, he pulled out all the stops.
“Luke contacted Erika’s favorite author, James Frey (through Facebook) and told him about this sweet girl he had a crush on,” said Anna, “and how big a fan Erika was of Mr. Frey’s books.”
“But I never heard a response,” said Luke. “I assumed he had other things to do. The day before her birthday, a package showed up at my house. I couldn’t believe he actually sent it. It was a first edition copy of her favorite book, ‘A Million Little Pieces.’ I was completely shocked. I didn’t know what to do with it. I was sitting with one of my buddies. It was before we really started dating. I talked my friend into dropping it off on her front porch.
“The author signed it and said, ‘This sounds like a great guy and he loves you a lot.’ That was a little too soon to say that, but I couldn’t white out his handwriting.
“She called me that evening.”
By then, Luke and Erika were good friends.
“He was the one I talked to every day about anything and everything,” said Erika, who now does marketing for an engineering firm. “Before class, before he would go to work. When I would come home, we would not go out together, but see each other in passing.
“I knew he liked me a lot. There were a lot of times he put himself out there, and I wasn’t sure if it was what I wanted, or if it would go the right way. Would I lose a best friend if it didn’t go the right way?”
A couple months before she graduated, things changed.
“I was coming home. Maybe it was spring break. He was all about let’s get dinner. We went to Reifscheider’s in Freeburg. And that was it. One date. We both knew it was going to work out.”
Still, Luke got flustered around Erika, like the day he took his truck to Charleston to help her move home from college.
“It was the first weekend I got to know her parents,” he said. “When I stopped to get gas, I was in such a hurry to beat the rain that I still had the gas pump in the car. I was mortified. I went back. The gas station guy said, ‘No problem.’ I felt terrible. To this day, her brother reminds me, ‘Make sure you take the pump out this time.’”
One of Luke’s recent surprises turned a party for him into an engagement party for her.
“I had finished my apprenticeship Oct. 21 of this past year,” said Luke, now a union carpenter. “I got wind she was planning a surprise graduation party. I wasn’t going to let her have the upper hand. I called all her friends and our families and got them all to come in on a Friday night.”
Luke proposed to Erika upstairs at Seven Restaurant and Lounge in downtown Belleville.
“I was kind of nervous,” he said. “I had a long speech planned. There were almost 200 people all looking at me to do something. I turned around, dropped to one knee and proposed.”
They bought a house last November and will be married Oct. 22 at St. Luke’s in Belleville.