The dance continues

Alums reunite after 70 years

Wallace “Wally” Chappell walked gingerly through his Dallas home, each step taken carefully and with purpose. At 94 years old, he doesn’t take a step or a moment for granted, especially moments shared with his new bride, Lawrean Davis Isaacks Chappell, 89.

Lawrean and Wally Chappell

The two graduates of Rice got married Aug. 18 in Houston and enjoy telling the story of how they became the oldest Rice alumni to marry each other.

Sitting in a comfortable chair in his living room, Wally carefully presented an aged photo of a young Lawrean in a two-piece swimsuit, standing confidently with her hands on her hips astride a boat.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” the retired pastor and engineer marveled.

The first time Wally saw Lawrean was in 1942. He was a tall, handsome engineering student entering his senior year at Rice. She was a petite Rice freshman from Bellaire and, in Wally’s words, “the most beautiful girl” he’d ever seen.

Over the next year, the pair were inseparable, Lawrean recalled.

“Everyone that saw us knew that I was Wally’s girl,” she said with a proud smile.

There were dances, dates and sporting events. They enjoyed each other’s company and no one could deny the chemistry the pair shared.

During that year, Wally proposed marriage, but Lawrean was reluctant.

“I was 18 years old and I thought we should see other people,” she said. “Looking back, I should have married him.”

But that isn’t how this love story unfolded.

“I couldn’t handle it when she said she wanted us to see other people,” Wally said. He threw himself into his work as an engineer and also mentored youth in his church.

Meanwhile, World War II was changing life around the country. Even though Wally felt the call to the ministry, he had to delay plans for the seminary until his services as an engineer for the war effort were no longer needed.

At Rice, Lawrean continued her studies to be an editor and met a young serviceman, a fellow Owl named Richard Isaacks. Meanwhile, Wally became enchanted with a young woman named Stell. The once inseparable young loves seemed cast on very different paths.

Wally and Lawrean display their Rice class rings. Photos and video by Brandon Martin.

After the war, Wally and Stell got married and moved to Dallas, where he attended seminary and they raised four boys.

Upon Richard’s return from the war, he and Lawrean married and settled in Houston to raise their two boys and two girls.

Over the next seven decades Wally and Lawrean would hear of each other from mutual friends. Occasionally they’d run into each other at weddings and homecomings at Rice. As time passed, their meetings began to occur at the funerals of old friends.

Wally and Lawrean were invested in their own lives, their loving families and their individual futures. But neither ever forgot their first love.

In 2010, Lawrean read in the Owlmanac Classnotes that Wally had lost his beloved wife. The note invited friends to call Wally. Lawrean’s own husband had been suffering from dementia for some time and she sympathized in many ways with the loss of a spouse, so she decided to call Wally.

What started with one phone call developed into a close friendship. Wally and Lawrean not only shared loss, but also a common history and a devout faith in God.

Lawrean’s husband’s mind was lost. So for the next three years, Lawrean and Wally met only as friends while her husband lived in a nursing home.

After Richard died earlier this year, Wally and Lawrean realized a strong bond and deep love had developed, and the two decided to pursue the relationship that had been lying dormant for 70 years.

When health issues prevented Wally from driving to Houston himself, he’d take a bus to see his new love. Seventy years might have separated the two, and now transportation between Dallas and Houston certainly wasn’t going to keep the pair apart.

“The love affair of my senior year was serious, and you don’t walk away from experiences of that sort,” Wally said. “I have discovered a best friend. Yes, there is some continuity from the past, but this one is new and different.”

For their wedding at the First Christian Church in Houston, Wally and Lawrean used a picture of the couple as young loves at Rice, wrapped in each other’s arms dancing, on the invitation. It was a picture that was snapped at an Elizabeth Baldwin Society dance and used in the 1943 Campanile. The calligraphy caption under the photo invited wedding guests to watch as “the dance continues.”

Lawrean’s picture in the “beauty section” of the Campanile and Wally’s picture as a young pastor were also on display at the wedding.

“We pray to God each meal and we ask his blessing,” Lawrean said. “We thank him for bringing us together as we both feel it is part of what He wanted us to do.”

“This is a geriatric arrangement,” Wally said with a smile, while squeezing the hand of his bride. “It’s different, but the kind of openness and freedom of the relation is simply astonishing. I cannot conceive of an adult man and woman any closer than we have been, any more open to all human experience than we are. This is my pal. I couldn’t have imaged it. I couldn’t have dreamed it. It wasn’t even on the scope and suddenly you’re aware of the fact it’s happening.”

But when they look at each other, you could imagine that it’s 1942 once again.



About Arie Passwaters

Arie Wilson Passwaters is a Web editor in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.