For most AU students and alumni, the steps of Mary Graydon Center represent a gateway to food and companionship. But for one couple, the steps of MGC are far more meaningful.
On the evening of May 15, 1964, AU freshman Joni Pelew met sophomore Gerry Sommer on the steps of MGC. Much has happened in the 50 years since, but their relationship has persisted. The
Sommers, now married for 47 years, are planning to return to their first meeting place on May 15 to celebrate all that they’ve achieved since the first time they shared that space.
“We want to be there and just commemorate it because that’s where it all began,” Joni said. “We have been very, very blessed.”
Springtime at AU in 1964
Spring was in the air, finals were just two weeks away and the weekend was fast approaching.
Joni, an education major and Phi Sigma Sigma sister, and Gerry, who wanted to go into law, didn’t connect instantly. In fact, each had a date of his and her own when they met on the steps.
“I was going out with a freshman,” Joni said. “His friend Gerry had a ‘53 Buick with a capacity of six people, so he drove he and his date and two other couples, including me and my date.”
Joni’s date wanted her to meet his friend Gerry, who would be driving them the following night.
Joni and Gerry met briefly on the MGC steps before going their separate ways. The next day, the two couples made their way to the Marshall Hall amusement park on the Potomac River. Gerry’s fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, which no longer has a chapter on campus, was hosting a party featuring a live band.
“Gerry asked me to dance,” Joni said. “In those days we all used to watch ‘American Bandstand,’ and that’s how we learned to dance. Gerry and I danced together the exact same way. We danced well together.”
After that brief encounter, Joni and Gerry went their separate ways: Joni with her date, Gerry with his.
Though Joni was still technically seeing her original date, she didn’t have to wait long to hear back from Gerry, who called two days later to ask Joni out for the following Friday. In a time without cell phones, Joni had to go downstairs to the McDowell
Hall lobby’s shared phone to accept his call. She agreed immediately.
“I decided to call Joni because I thought that she had a great personality, and I enjoyed talking to her,” Gerry said.
Joni quickly forgot about her date from the previous night.
“I had dated this guy on and off for maybe a month,” she said. “Nothing serious at all.”
Joni and Gerry’s relationship began to blossom on the second date, when he took her to the new Dulles Airport.
“We threw pennies in a fountain,” Joni said.
The two dated throughout the summer. Despite living in two different states, the couple managed to see each other every weekend.
Gerry and Joni stayed in each other’s homes, attended concerts and Broadway shows and came back in the fall as a couple.
The relationship was solidified when Gerry got his fraternity involved. They exchanged letters and pins, and Joni, was treated to the fraternity’s special ceremony for couples.
“His fraternity came and serenaded me in McDowell with roses, which was the custom,” Joni said. “That was wonderful.”
The happy couple made the most of its time at AU and in D.C., they said.
“Georgetown was very different then,” Joni said. “We used to have a place, the second weekend that we dated, we went to the Charcoal Hearth. It was our place to go for many, many years even after we got married.” The Charcoal Hearth is now an office building.
The Sommers also spent time at the Zebra Room on Wisconsin and the Hofburg Deli on Eastern Avenue.
Gerry and Joni continued dating until Sommer was 21. Joni was a junior and Gerry was a senior. On Joni’s 21st birthday, Sommer revealed a special surprise.
“He gave me four boxes,” Joni said. “I kept opening up the boxes and at the very end, there was an engagement ring.”
For Gerry, the decision wasn’t difficult.
“I decided that Joni was the love of my life because we had so many things in common,” Gerry said. “We enjoyed talking about literature and going to the movies and concerts.”
A little more than three years after they first met on the steps of MGC, Joni and Gerry married on June 17, 1967. They spent their honeymoon at the Concorde Hotel in New York and went on to raise two children, now 38 and 43, and four grandchildren. Their extended family now spans the nation and the globe, from Los Angeles and Las Vegas to New York, D.C. and even Paris.
“The most fulfilling thing about raising two children was watching them grow from infancy to adulthood and becoming wonderful loving parents to their own children,” Gerry said.
Equally impressive, both managed to achieve the career goals they set for themselves before they went to college: Gerry was a labor attorney for more than 40 years, and Joni taught kindergarten and other forms of early childhood education for 39.
“I really loved it,” she said. “Now I love my life retired, too.”
Joni now spends her days volunteering in her community and serving on the Brandeis National Committee, an organization committed to lifelong learning. She also leads an exercise class two days a week in her condo. Meanwhile, Gerry juggles substitute teaching, tennis, golf, bowling and even local politics in Maryland.
After knowing each other for 50 years and being married for 47, both said their relationship is as sturdy as ever.
“I always say that Gerry and I are still dating since that first date we had at American University,” Joni said. “And dancing as well.”