The matchmaker

issue 01 | summer 2024
A man and a woman sitting on a park bench on a warm day. His arm is around her and she is leaning into him.

Two flyers, hung in separate university buildings, changed the life of Mike Lafferty.

The first was answered by his future tenant. The second by his future wife.

Lafferty, a former newspaper reporter, knows how to weave a story by connecting strands of information. Even the loose threads, ones which puzzle him, add intrigue to the tale.

On the afternoon of Nov. 27, 2023, he shared these details with mourners who assembled at First Presbyterian Church in Granville. The occasion was a memorial service for his wife of 40 years, Margaret “Marlee” Meriwether, a trailblazing professor of Middle Eastern history at Denison.

“When young married couples first meet, one will ask the other, ‘How did you meet?’’ Lafferty told the audience. “Marlee and I always hemmed and hawed, and I would say something like, ‘Marlee picked me up in a bar,’ which always got me a hard elbow to the ribs.”

The truth takes time to unspool and involves a question Lafferty has asked himself many times over the past four decades. Because the only connection that linked Lafferty and Meriwether in 1981 was a senior named Walker Roberts ’82 — his renter, her student.

Roberts left Denison after graduation, and a week before the couple met on the front porch of Lafferty’s West College Street home.

“So what about Walker Roberts?” Lafferty said in his closing remarks to the audience.

“I never saw him again, but it turns out Walker Roberts was a pretty good matchmaker.”

It makes for a nice story, but even as he told it, Lafferty had no idea if it was true.

A room for one

Walking through Slayter Hall in 1981, Roberts spotted a flyer on the wall with a phone number:

“Room for rent, half bath. Call Mike.”

Lafferty made decent money working for the Columbus Dispatch, but he was a single man in his mid-30s with a mortgage, a sailboat, and a penchant for overspending. Facing his financial straits, Lafferty decided to take on a boarder for the 1981-82 school year.

This was a time when Denison permitted seniors to live off campus.

Lafferty received one call. Roberts.

“Walker was a nice young man,” Lafferty recalls.

“More importantly, he had the security deposit.”

It was an ideal arrangement. Both had busy schedules and rarely saw each other. But as time passed, the landlord and tenant moved beyond small talk.

Roberts learned of Lafferty’s passion for journalism and sailing. Lafferty discovered Roberts was majoring in history, planning to attend graduate school, and dating Leah, a woman he met while studying abroad in Austria.

Lafferty also kept hearing about the student’s academic advisor.

Meriwether had just joined the Denison faculty, and her expertise in Middle Eastern history and culture piqued Roberts’s interest in international studies and foreign affairs. She sometimes invited students to her apartment and made them her famous hummus.

The professor was adventurous. She had studied at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and spoke Arabic. She was a relentless researcher and a strong female presence on Denison’s faculty.

She also was single and living in Stone Hall, which at the time housed junior faculty members.

Meriwether took an interest in her students’ lives. She wanted to know how Roberts enjoyed living off campus. He told her about Lafferty, his work as a writer, his sense of humor. He volunteered one other tidbit about his landlord. Lafferty loved sailing.

A fish story

A week after Roberts graduated and moved out of the house, Lafferty found himself in a bind. He had invited two couples from the newspaper to go out on Lake Erie.

While he had a robust professional life in Columbus, Lafferty was not much for dating. But he figured organizing a sailing trip only to show up as a fifth wheel was bad form.

Lafferty had never seen Meriwether, let alone been in her company. Roberts had painted a vivid picture, however. Lafferty decided to post flyers on the front and back doors of Stone Hall:

“If you want to go sailing, call Mike.”

“I thought, well, advertising had worked once for me,” Lafferty says. “But in this case, I was fishing for only one fish, and I was hoping nobody else would bite.”

Lafferty received one call. Meriwether.

The professor made the two-minute walk to Lafferty’s house. She stood on his front porch and told him, “I want to go sailing.”

That weekend, they drove to Port Clinton, Ohio, and set out on a three-day excursion. Lafferty was keen on Meriwether’s blue eyes and dark hair, but what really attracted him was her intellect.

“Marlee is the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Lafferty says.

The weather was perfect. The wind never took the sailboat off course. On the first night, after the other couples had gone to bed, Lafferty and Meriwether held hands and kissed for the first time.

They were married in 1983 and soon had a son named Patrick. Lafferty treasured summer days when he could work from home and be together with Meriwether and their newborn.

Over the years, the couple occasionally discussed Roberts and the role he might have played in their meeting. “I thought about Walker many, many times, and wondered how his life turned out,” Lafferty says.

From one Hill to another

Roberts enrolled in Johns Hopkins University, married Leah, and started a family. He began working in Washington, D.C., with a goal of landing on Capitol Hill.

He leaned into the Denison alumni network and connected with Indiana senator Richard Lugar ’54, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his chief of staff, Chip Andreae ’77.

They hired Roberts as a documents clerk making $6,000 a year. Among those who previously held the job was a college student named Bill Clinton, who went on to other things.

Roberts served under President Ronald Reagan in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs from 1987-89. He followed that honor with a 17-year stint on the staff of the House Committee of International Relations before transitioning to the private sector in 2006 and joining the lobbying firm BGR Group, where he still works.

Roberts stayed connected with Denison. He knew Lafferty and Meriwether had wed. About 15 years ago, while driving from Indianapolis to Washington, Roberts took a detour to Granville, hoping to surprise the couple. Unaware they had moved, he never found them.

In early 2024, Roberts learned of Meriwether’s death. He read her obituary and thought it was a beautiful tribute. Nobody had to tell him who had written it.

Roberts received an email from Denison Magazine in March, seeking comment on his memories of Meriwether. A follow-up email contained a single request: Would he participate in a Zoom meeting with his old landlord?

Question answered

“Hey, Walker,” Lafferty says, staring into his laptop camera. “Long time no see.”

“Yeah,” Roberts replies. “What’s it been, like, 42 years?”

The conversation is effortless. The memories flow, as do the questions. Two men recalling a time when their whole lives were ahead of them.

Roberts asks if the house at 440 West College still stands. Lafferty says it does. He sold it to former Denison President Michele Tolela Myers after he and Meriwether lived there for a few years. Roberts jokes that had he remained in town, Meriwether would have kicked him out. That she wouldn’t have wanted a former student living in the downstairs bedroom.

They laugh at the thought of it. The stories spill out one after another.

Lafferty talks of how he accompanied Meriwether on research trips to the Middle East. How they spent years sailing together.

Roberts mentions the contributions Meriwether made to his development.

“I am who I am now because of my schooling at Denison and the relations I made with Marlee and others,” Roberts says.

“Marlee was the epitome of the professor who gets students excited to learn. She stimulated my intellectual curiosity.”

Lafferty explains how Meriwether was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2012 and how brave she was in facing the disease.

“I miss her so much,” Lafferty says. “We held hands every day.”

“It brings tears to my eyes knowing you had such a wonderful life together,” Roberts replies.

As the hourlong teleconference nears its end, the two men exchange contact information. They pledge to stay in touch.

Lafferty says he’s happy that Roberts has enjoyed a long and prosperous career in Washington.

Finally, the former newspaper reporter ties up one of the loose threads of his love story. He asks the question that’s been on his mind for four decades.

“Was it your intention to fix us up?”

Roberts flashes a grin. “Oh, for sure,” says the matchmaker.

Published May 2024
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