Lesley and Jim: A TAS Love Story
Imagine marrying a girl you met in high school forty years later. This may sound like the plot of a Nicholas Sparks novel, but it is the actual real-life story of Lesley Hall ’79 and Jim Smith ’78. Forty years ago, they both lived in Taipei, where they attended TAS. Four years ago, their lives reconverged at a TAS reunion in Virginia. This year, they tied the knot in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Act I: Taipei, Taiwan, 1976
Jim “Smitty” Smith ’78 was a junior at TAS, a young man with a mop of red hair. He was known around campus as a talented artist who drew colorful posters for school events and the yearbook and was a letterman on the TAS varsity baseball team. Jim’s father worked for Gulf Oil and had moved his family to Taiwan from Japan in 1972, shortly after President Nixon made his historic trip to Shanghai, China. He entered TAS in Grade 7 with Hope Phillips as the middle school Principal and found a culturally dynamic and vibrant school. He loved his experiences in Taiwan and the freedom of traveling in Asia. “It was an absolute adventure that I can’t explain to my children or people who didn’t have the opportunity to live through that time,” recalls Jim. “The oral history of the school is called Ties that Bind, and it’s very true. I still have as my closest friends the people I met when I was growing up in Taiwan. We’ve stayed in touch through the years, and it wasn’t easy pre-Internet and pre-Facebook.” After his first semester of college, Jim flew back to visit his parents in December of 1978, and two days after he landed in Taipei, President Carter announced the derecognition of the ROC on TV. As Jim puts it, “I was there for the unraveling of US-Taiwan relations, from soup to nuts.”
In the summer of 1976, Lesley Hall ’79 had just moved to Taipei from Maryland. Her father worked for the Department of Defense and had moved their family to Tokyo, Japan, then back to Maryland in 1973, and now, to Taipei. The family of five lived in Wellington Heights. The 1977 Yearbook shows a dark-haired girl with an open smile next to her teammates on the TAS tennis team. At first, Lesley found it hard to meet people and get into the community, but it all changed for her with Mr. Arnold’s class Journeys into Asian Culture. Lesley recalls visiting Chiayi and going up Alishan in an old wooden train: “We had about 30 people. I knew there were parent chaperones, but it felt like we were our own group – not teachers and students, but just people exploring Taiwan. Mr. Arnold knew Taiwan so well and had such a talent for bringing people together. He brought the magic to Journeys, like knowing when to get us up to watch the sunrise from the top of Alishan.” For Lesley, Journeys was among her most lasting memories of Taiwan. “For Chinese New Year, we were assigned to find a Chinese family to have the celebration with. It was such a treat – something you wouldn’t do on your own. He really forced you to get outside of yourself and participate in the country,” remembers Lesley.
“You can’t overemphasize the importance of that,” Jim adds. “In those days, most TAS students were DoD [Department of Defense] dependents, and with movie theaters, teen clubs, sports facilities, swimming pools, and even a private beach, it was easy for kids to become insulated from the full experience of what life in Taipei had to offer. I took a middle school version [of Journeys] called Asia House, started by Mrs. Phillips. They pulled 13-year-olds out of school to venture down island for 10 days, where they stayed in Chinese hotels, ate local cuisine, and caught some Taiwanese opera. It introduced us to what Taiwan was all about.” Both Jim and Lesley loved their brief but exciting time in Taiwan.
Did Jim and Lesley ever meet at TAS? Both remember each other by sight, but they never spoke and moved in different social circles. Jim remembers that he had wanted to get to know her better, but never got the chance. “That’s how life works out sometimes,” he says ruefully. But sometimes, you also get a second shot.
After TAS, Jim and Lesley led separate lives. Lesley came back to the US for her senior year in Annapolis, Maryland, which she recalled as a breeze after the rigor of TAS. She attended the University of Maryland, majored in journalism, and after graduation, worked for USA Today. She married her first husband and moved to Germany in the ‘90s, working as a reporter and editor for a US military newspaper. She ended up eventually in northern Virginia, working in editing and advertising.
After Jim graduated from TAS in 1978, he attended the University of Houston thanks to a chance meeting with the Dean of the School of Architecture. He worked in architecture in various firms until 2012, traveling all over the world and the US. He married a woman he met in Houston and had three children. Jim not only kept in touch with TAS classmates but also attended reunions voraciously, becoming what Lesley calls “the record holder for the most TAS reunions attended since graduation.” (The current count is at 11, “slightly ahead of Francie Burnet ’78,” with whom Jim has an ongoing, unofficial competition.)
Act II: District of Columbia, USA; February 2015
Fast forward 37 years: 2015 was a tough year for both Jim and Lesley. Jim’s wife passed away in 2014, and he had moved his architecture practice home to raise their three children. His best friends Jeff Massa ’77 and Michelle Wilson Massa ’79 invited Jim to stay with them in northern Virginia for a much-needed change of scenery as well as – what else? – a TAS reunion at the home of Ken Grant ’77 and Connie Taube.
The previous year, Lesley lost her brother and mother to illness within a six-week period and was not getting out much either. Her best friend from TAS who now lives in Maryland, Brigid Donnelly Hughes ’79, persuaded her to attend her first-ever TAS reunion, which just happened to be at the Grant-Taube house. Despite her misgivings, Lesley went, and to her surprise, she ended up talking the night away in the kitchen with a man she recalled very clearly from TAS many years ago: Jim Smith. They got caught up in discovering and sharing common histories of living in Tokyo, moving to Taipei, attending TAS, and many more memories, starting a conversation that continues today.
Shortly after they reconnected, Jim texted a photo from the 1977 Yearbook to Lesley: it was a photo of two women cleaning up at the Shilin campus after Typhoon Vera had flooded the school. It was a well-known photo in Lesley’s family, because her mother was one of the two women, and just before the photo was taken, she had fallen down the mud-slicked steps at TAS and broken a bone. Lesley said as much to Jim, and Jim said, “I know – I was standing off to the side when that picture was taken, and I remember your mom telling my mom about her fall.” The other woman in the picture was Jim’s mother.
Act III: Santa Fe, New Mexico; July 2018
For three years, Lesley and Jim carried on a long-distance relationship “enriching Southwest Airlines in the process,” quips Jim. They took a long road trip together in the summer of 2015, navigating remote and dusty roads in the Southwest with only a Rand McNally road atlas, a tradition they kept up in subsequent summers. They traveled to TAS reunions in Nashville in 2015 and New Orleans in 2017. In 2016 and 2018, they fulfilled one of their longtime wishes and returned to Taiwan for the Worldwide Reunions. They reunited with Mr. Arnold, revisited their old neighborhoods in Tianmu and Wellington Heights, and hiked up to Battleshop Rock near Beitou, more commonly known as “Dog’s Head.” After all those travels, they found it so natural to elope to Santa Fe that they barely had to think about it.
Lesley calls their relationship something that feels like it was meant to be. “We both enjoy getting out and traveling. We have the same interests and even collect the same things. Jim and I talk about TAS and Taiwan all the time. It is so great to have that shared experience with the person you are married to.” Jim adds another layer: “There’s a great vibe that exists among TAS alumni. It comes from everyone looking back on their experience years later and having the ability to really appreciate what we had when we were kids.” There are many TAS couples who would agree with Jim and Lesley.
These days, Jim is in the process of moving from Houston to Virginia, where the couple will combine their enormous libraries (over 7,000 books!), their collection of ‘70s pirated vinyl records from Taiwan (purchased for NT$10 each), their Ricardo Lynn furniture, and dozens of boxes of Taiwan photos and ephemera. Together, Jim and Lesley look forward to many more years of travel and TAS reunions. To echo what Mr. Arnold said when he heard about their marriage, “We wish them every happiness in the world.”