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Old friends and more

Brian and Kristen Housel knew each other in school. A chance meeting rekindled their friendship and led to marriage.

By AMY SCHERZER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 19, 2002

TAMPA -- It was last call at the Chatterbox, maybe 10 minutes before closing, when Kristen Gonzalez walked in the door.

"Whoa, babe," Brian Housel recalls saying, or words to that effect. He eyeballed the 5-foot-8 blondin the slinky black body suit. He caught the toss of her ponytail, the stomp of her black leather boots.

"I nearly dropped my Crown and ginger with a twist of lime," he says.

Kristen remembers Brian looked pretty slick himself, in camel-colored wool slacks and a button-down dress shirt.

She hadn't wanted to go out that night. Friends practically dragged her into the old South Tampa hangout that Dec. 22, two years ago.

"Let me get you a drink," Brian said to her. "Amaretto sour, isn't it?"

Kristen's heart pounded. How did he remember that?

Years ago, she knew Brian when he was someone else's boyfriend. One of her closet friends from high school dated him for three years. She and that friend (call her Friend X), flew to New Orleans twice a month to visit Brian when he attended Loyola University.

Years later, he wanted to know just one thing: Was she married?

After the chance encounter at the Chatterbox, the couple renewed a 10-year friendship. The first time he called he asked her out on three dates: a movie (Cast Away), dinner and a bike ride on Davis Islands.

The two extroverts haven't stopped talking since. There was so much to catch up on.

"After one night out in Ybor City, we sat in my car and talked till 8 the next morning," Kristen says.

On June 15, at Sacred Heart Church, Monsignor Laurence Higgins pronounced them husband and wife.

* * *

Kristen, now 26, was a ninth-grader at the Academy of the Holy Names when Brian, 27, was in 10th grade at Jesuit High School. They used to see each other around.

They ran in the same circles, went to the same parties, had mutual friends.

After graduation in 1993, Brian saw Kristen every time she came to New Orleans with Friend X. He recently found a thank-you note she had written him after one particularly fun visit. ("Packrat," she teased him.)

Kristen graduated from high school in 1994 and left for Spain to study at the University of Salamanca for six months. She returned to attend the University of Tampa, earning a degree in elementary education in 1998. That Christmas, she was engaged to a semipro soccer player who also attended UT.

The invitations were addressed and stamped when Kristen called off the wedding.

"Best thing I ever did in my life," Kristen said. "He wasn't my soul mate."

Adds Brian: "She was waiting for me."

Kristen moved in with her parents, Ann and Tony Gonzalez, and went to work as marketing director for Manufacturers Bank, recently bought by Colonial Bank. Her father, once a prominent defense lawyer, was co-founder of Manufacturers.

She seldom dated, preferring to spend time with family.

Brian changed course, too. He left Loyola when his parents divorced in the middle of his sophomore year. He moved back home to be closer to his mother, Sharon Cowart, now a teacher at the Academy of the Holy Names. He's stayed close to his stepfather, too, Dr. Craig Cowart, an emergency room physician in Tarpon Springs. They fish and go boating together whenever they can.

After graduating from Florida State University, Brian bused tables at Donatello's restaurant and studied for a securities license. By the time he met Kristen at the Chatterbox, he had been a financial consultant for A.G. Edwards for almost a year.

* * *

Ann and Tony Gonzalez had already hosted weddings for two other daughters. They pulled out the files for No. 3. Like her sisters, Kristen would marry at Sacred Heart Church and celebrate at the family's Lake Carroll estate.

Kristen asked her two older sisters, Jennifer Lee and Stefanie Vargas, to be matrons of honor. Best friend Lauren Gonzmart Laurato and Brian's two sisters, Lauralisa Oliver and Christina Cowart, were bridesmaids.

Brian's two best men, Jordi Prat III and Steve Mays, joined groomsmen Sergio Mordini, David Oliver, Brendan Lee and Steve Hellman.

The eight children coming down the aisle included 9-year-old Sebastian Vargas, who pulled 7-month-old twins Michael and Isabella Laurato and 6-month-old Isabella Lee in a little red wagon swathed in ivory silk.

The newlyweds, delivered to the party in a Rolls Royce, arrived to 500 guests and a carnival of tents. In the terrace tent, by the pool, waiters passed hors d'oeuvres from Malio's. They dined beneath a second tent (10,000 square feet), at 50 tables topped with blush pink tablecloths and ecru organza overlays.

A third tent (2,400 square feet) held the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, flown in for the night from New Orleans. The Dirty Dozen alternated with local band Mainstream.

The dinner menu, catered by the Columbia Restaurant, raised the bar for wedding parties in Tampa: quail, duck, game and chicken stations, 1905 Salad, paella, lobster tails and chateaubriand.

The five-layer wedding cake came from Le Cheesecake. Raspberry jam separated layers of vanilla cake and cheesecake.

Mr. and Mrs. Housel partied until 3:30 a.m. Sixteen hours later, they were off to Italy for a two-week honeymoon.

-- To pass along tips to Amy Scherzer, reach her at 226-3332 or

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