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Fourth grade to the future

She knew in elementary school. He knew by college. The newlyweds have '' been soul mates forever,'' a mother said.

By AMY SCHERZER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 16, 2002


She knew in elementary school. He knew by college. The newlyweds have " been soul mates forever," a mother said.

PALMA CEIA -- Meredith McInnis picked out her husband when she was 9.

They were in Nancy Mooy's fourth-grade class at Mitchell Elementary School. His name was Christopher Abrunzo.

"I never thought I'd marry anyone else," said Meredith, 23.

For Chris, 24, the certainty came in college.

No one was surprised when the two married August 3 at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church.

A shared history of youthful memories built a foundation for their future. They remember rehearsing skits at Komedy Kids summer camp. They recall collaborating on English papers at Wilson Middle School.

Chris used to cut off the other boys to be Meredith's dance partner at Cotillion, an etiquette class taught at the Tampa Yacht Club.

"So did I," Meredith said, "to be your partner."

Chris would wait for her car to pull into the Plant High School parking lot. She would pop into his Latin class to say hi.

First kiss: Late spring, junior year, on the roof of Chris' house.

The duo danced through their years at Plant, where Chris was elected Pantherilla King and voted senior with the "Best Smile." Six years later, he escorted Meredith when she ran for Gasparilla queen.

They barely remember life before they met. They grew up three blocks apart: Meredith lived in Golfview and Chris lived in nearby Parkland Estates. Their parents noticed -- and respected -- the teenage friendship.

"They've been soul mates forever," said Eleanor McInnis, Meredith's mother. "I'm not sure even they knew how much they liked each other."

Meredith's dad, Buck McInnis, CEO of Tampa Bay Steel Corp., puts it another way: "He's always known where the spare key is."

Chris' father, emergency room pediatrician Tom Abrunzo, says the two are "tremendously at ease" with each other. Chris' mother, Missy Abrunzo, an academic adviser at the University of Tampa, calls the relationship "mature."

"They enjoy each other's company, yet allow the other to do what they want independent of each other," Tom Abrunzo said.

They've never broken up. A fight would be rare.

Did they ever wonder if they were missing out on something, or someone?

"It's a pretty fulfilling relationship," Chris said. "Dating looked unfulfilling."

Chris wasn't always the only guy in Meredith's life. In sixth grade, Charles Chunn gave her the chicken pox. And in ninth grade, a boy named Brian took her to homecoming. Chris invited a girl named Alyson.

But then Brian moved to Colorado, and there hasn't been anyone but Chris since.

At first, they admitted only to algebra homework dates.

"That was the joke," said Chris' mother. "All their friends would say, 'Oh, they're doing math together.' We finally figured out that was the code word for spending time together."

* * *

Heeding advice from family and friends, the pair parted to different colleges after high school graduation in 1996.

Chris, who majored in European history, went off to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. Meredith, who chose American studies, barely lasted a semester without him at the University of Georgia.

"I was really homesick. I felt out-of-state and out-of-place," she said.

She joined him in Sewanee and their relationship grew stronger. A semester-abroad program brought another separation. Both signed up to study European history at Oxford University, but with different concentrations.

Meredith's medieval classes took her to Germany, Italy and France for a month. Chris spend a month traveling to Italy, Greece and Turkey to study the ancient years.

"That was the longest we'd ever gone without talking," said Chris.

Back together again in London, they discovered further proof of their compatibility. They made great traveling companions.

"Chris is the planner," Meredith said.

"And she's the enjoyer, the one who stays calm," Chris said.

The following year, the Sewanee grads, class of '00, brought their diplomas back to Tampa. Chris went to work as a financial analyst for Merrill Lynch; Meredith served tea at Rosemary Cottage. Both lived at home.

When Chris' job ended in April 2001, he decided to travel some more. He and a cousin toured Europe for six weeks. Meredith met up with them mid-trip in Barcelona.

A few months later, Missy and Tom Abrunzo invited the young couple to join them on a two-week trip to China.

"That is where we got to know how lively, witty and fun Meredith is to be around," Tom said. "I began to appreciate what Chris felt about her."

* * *

Meredith and Chris came home to talk about the future. She went to work at UT. Chris applied to law school in order to proceed with his life plan: to marry Meredith.

"Its tough to ask parents if you can marry their daughter when you don't have anything going on," he said.

Four months ago, on April 19, Chris drove Meredith to Anna Maria Island to the Abrunzo beach house. He had the ring in his pocket and the blessings of both sets of parents.

All he needed was a sunset.

"But I was too excited to wait," he said.

On the path to the house, off the crowded beach, he suddenly dropped to one knee, ring in hand, and asked Meredith to marry him.

She was silent, stunned.

"I always knew we would get married, but when the moment arrived, I was so surprised," she said.

"Say something," Chris said.

They rushed inside, where Chris' grandfather, Marty Higgins, 86, was the first to congratulate them. Meredith quickly called a friend, who happened to be at Chili's with their gang of friends.

"She passed her cell phone around and everyone knew at once," Meredith said.

Wedding plans moved fast, for Chris would soon start law school at Florida State University.

Meredith found a wedding gown on her first shopping trip. She chose aqua silk for her 10 bridesmaids, while 10 groomsmen wore white dinner jackets.

Their first choice for the reception, the Tampa Yacht Club, was booked. Caterer Rita Carlino suggested Marcelina's, a private club for women on Plant Avenue. That's where 400 guests ate dinner and danced in a 6,300-square foot, air-conditioned tent covering the parking lot. The bride and groom invited so many friends, it seemed like a high school reunion.

At evening's end, the newlyweds exited through a waving sea of sizzling sparklers -- childhood pals all grown up.

-- Amy Scherzer can be reached at 226-3332 or scherzer@sptimes.com

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