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Biology, religion, lots of chemistry

They met, studied, married, studied, had kid No. 1, studied, kid No. 2, studied, kid No. 3, studied. Saturday was the payoff.

By BEN MONTGOMERY
Published August 13, 2006


TAMPA - The stories on the floor of the Sun Dome on Saturday were tucked inside numbers: 2,461 students to receive diplomas at the University of South Florida's summer commencement; 77 nations and 39 states represented; 25, the median age; 67, the oldest; 19, the youngest.

Then there was the number 3.

It belongs to the couple seated near the center aisle, the biology major wearing a necktie and the religious studies major with braces on her teeth.

To appreciate the number, back up a little to a hot Wednesday afternoon. Climb the stairs to an apartment off State Road 56, the place with knee-high smudges on the walls and plastic train tracks on the carpet. Sit on a couch salvaged from a curb, and listen to the couple's story of biology and babies.

It begins in October of 2000 at the Student Union at USF. She, 19, of Arcadia likes the way he looks. He, 21, of Tampa likes to fish.

In November, she informs him they'll wed someday. In December, he takes her to Sunshine Skyway bridge and makes her bait her own hook. "I didn't really want a girlfriend at the time," he says.

They go camping in Arcadia, and he is strumming his guitar when she decides her feelings are sincere. A week later he presents her with a compilation CD: Nights in White Satin by the Moody Blues, Angel by Jimi Hendrix and I Think I Love You by the Partridge Family.

I have one for you, she says, and she slips in the Dixie Chicks.

Times are hard, rents are high

What can a working girl do

But struggle through another day

Then I'll take care of you

January, in her dorm room, they let a look linger and he says, "We're going to get married, aren't we?" And she says, "I told you."

February, not quite four months after they met, he drives to Bern's Steak House, which strikes her funny because they're always counting change for Taco Bell. She orders filet mignon, he has lobster. He does not speak. She disappears to the ladies' room.

When she comes out, he pushes her back in and takes a knee. She says "yes, of course," and sets a date.

July 2001, University Church of God, man and wife. They honeymoon in Orlando and do what honeymooners do.

Three weeks later he's thinking he made a mistake.

"She started going to bed at 6 and she was being mean to me and complaining about my messes, and she wouldn't go fishing with me," he says.

That's when she calls the Pet Supermarket - one of his three jobs - and tells him to come home. When he does she breaks the news and he ... he leaves.

"Without saying a word," she says. "I thought he left me. I called my mother."

He returns with milk, vitamins, Kash n' Karry flowers and more pregnancy tests.

"He made me take all four," she says.

Spring of 2002, here comes No. 1. After seventeen hours of labor, it's back to school. No. 2 comes in March of 2004. The epidural only half works and the baby weighs all of 9.7 pounds, then it's back to school.

No. 3 - remember the numbers? - comes in 2005, at the end of summer semester, then it's back to school, studying at nap time, breastfeeding in class.

Shelby, 4, Daniel, 2, and Aly, 1, sat with his parents Saturday as the man with the microphone called names.

... Daniel Haller ...

He walked across the stage, greeted the school president, then turned and waited for his wife.

... Amanda Haller ...

She followed, reaching for his hand.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or 813-661-2443.