The first time Michael McElrath met his fiancée Crystal Stevens, he forgot her name. “He never was good with names,” says Crystal. But in September he’ll make up for the memory lapse by giving her his own. Michael was a year ahead of Crystal at UVA and involved in the IMPACT Movement, a national organization that promotes African-American leadership and spirituality on college campuses. Crystal introduced herself because she was interested in joining the organization. Through mutual friends, visits to Main Street’s First Baptist Church where Crystal’s uncle Dr. Bruce Beard was pastor, and a shared faith, Crystal and Michael’s purely platonic bond grew stronger. For two years they were best friends, like brother and sister, until Michael began developing romantic feelings. When he confessed his feelings to Crystal in February 2005, her first reaction was confused: “You treat me like a little sister.” But it turned out the big brother qualities she loved in him translated well into a new relationship. “He had an old-fashioned Southern upbringing,” Crystal says. He was the kind of guy who would walk her home after dark. He was chivalrous, sincere, and sweetly attentive. “You could tell he was hanging onto my every word,” says his fiancée.
Michael and Crystal discussed getting married and even looked at rings together, but Michael still wanted to preserve some spontaneity for their engagement. “I said, ‘You pick five rings and I’ll make the final pick so it will be a surprise.’ But by the look on her face, one ring really had her heart.” He aligned the big moment with his birthday dinner last October, in the midst of Crystal’s hectic law school schedule at Emory in Atlanta (she’s an MTS/JD ’10 candidate). Characteristically for Michael, he might have gone overboard with the planning, arranging an advance manicure for his girlfriend (“Because everyone would be looking at her hands,” reasoned Michael. “What’s wrong with my nails?” Crystal thought at the time), and selecting her favorite dress for their dinner at an upscale restaurant. But he’d forgotten to plan one key element of the engagement: How would he propose?
Michael relives the crucial moment at dinner. “It’s racing through my mind how I’m going to get her this ring. I excused myself to the bathroom, pulled one of the waiters aside, and told him to present the ring on a plate, kind of dress it up.” Michael returned to the table and was surprised by a different waiter approaching him with a complimentary birthday dessert. Crystal had also pulled some strings with the waitstaff. When Michael’s accomplice arrived with a second dessert, Crystal thought she was getting crème brulée. When Michael took the ring and got down on one knee, she began laughing, as Michael had bet friends she would, and “assaulting [him] with her dinner napkin,” which was not expected. “We received some odd stares from surrounding dinner patrons,” Michael remembers. Crystal said yes, of course, and fulfilled Michael’s birthday wish: “The only thing I wanted for my birthday was for her to be with me forever.”