How two people found each other in the era of social distancing
There was more than just COVID-19 in the air for Galvestonian Tom Rice. During the lockdown and quarantine, Rice also found love.
Rice, 55, was limiting his social exposures to his mother, Cathy Conlon-Townsend, his children and grandchildren, and customers at his auto repair shop, when he met Traci Hester at an outdoor family dinner gathering in March. Rice’s family and their next-door neighbor, Sharon Simmons, met regularly for dinner and Hester was new to the group.
Hester said there was no magic when she first met Rice. She had recently arrived from Austin, where she was working from home and needed to get away. She came to Galveston to be with her sister, Simmons, for a few days.
“I came for a week, and then it just extended,” Hester said. “When we met, Tom was totally not my type: he’s cute, but too quiet. Since I wasn’t interested in him, I just acted like myself and enjoyed the evening.”
But Rice was smitten, he said. He was widowed two years ago when his wife of 17 years died tragically as a passenger in a car accident in Galveston. His two grown children and three grandchildren kept him company, but he mourned privately.
Turns out, Rice was so quiet at the dinner because he was nervous when he met Hester, he said. She has a lively personality and seemed so comfortable. She had lived in Austin for 34 years and raised a son and daughter. She has two grandchildren and has been single for 26 years.
The two families gathered frequently for weekend meals during the city’s shutdown and dubbed themselves the “Rosenberg Quarantinos” because Conlon-Townsend and Simmons — the hosts for most gatherings — both live on Rosenberg Avenue in Galveston.
A few days after the first dinner, Hester’s car broke down and she called on Rice to help fix it. She, in turn, offered to give him a much-needed haircut because the barber shops had been shut down for more than a month during the pandemic.
“He rescued me and gave me a great deal on my car repairs,” Hester said. “I offered to give him a haircut and it just took off from there.”
They made a lunch date — difficult to do with all the restaurants closed, but they were able to grab a meal together, talk and laugh and realized they had a lot in common, including the fact that they were single, had grown children and grandchildren and were the same age.
For her birthday the next week, Rice prepared grilled poblano peppers — her favorite — and gave them to her.
“That was the kindest thing anyone had ever done,” Hester said.
“I had her now with just five peppers,” Rice said.
A few weeks later, the two moved in together when Hester decided to stay in Galveston. Her job as a sales representative for Office Depot requires her to work remotely, so Galveston was as good a place as Austin, she said.
Happily, family members have given the couple a thumbs up. Hester’s daughter, Amy, said Rice “passed the test.”
His family is onboard, as well.
“I could not be more pleased,” Conlon-Townsend said. “I knew Traci first — great gal. Tom went through a rough time when he lost his wife and I have never seen him be so happy since he met Traci. I love her for making him happy again.”
Now, the two are seriously planning their future together. The couple got engaged in July and plan a spring wedding at the Carr Mansion in Galveston.
“I’m in love,” Rice said.