Evan Smallwood ’15 was nervous. He’d tried on six different sweaters but nothing seemed right. He paced as he dressed, peering every few minutes out his Russell Hall window to check for his date. Just as he’d settled on a green quarter-zip, Aaron McPherson ’12 pulled into view, and Smallwood rushed downstairs to meet him.
McPherson had tucked something extra into his SUV – a bouquet of Smallwood’s favorite, sunflowers. He’d pondered the purchase, since after all, it was only the couple’s first outing. But then again, it was Valentine’s Day!
Today, eight years later, the two – whose wedding is the only one to take place at UMW’s Heslep Amphitheatre since a $3 million renovation wrapped up in 2018 – celebrate their first Valentine’s Day as a married couple. A photo from their special day garnered nearly 2,000 Instagram likes and became the most popular post in Mary Washington social media history. UMW had made an indelible tag on them, too, sparking their love for each other and dual careers in higher education.
Virginia natives – McPherson’s from Yorktown, Smallwood’s from Centreville – they learned of Mary Washington from friends and relatives. McPherson was smitten with the beautiful campus when he visited his sister, Lindsay McPherson London ’06. Smallwood, who originally enrolled at UMW for only one year, “fell in love” with the school and decided to stay.
He fell in love, too, with a sandy-haired senior the first time he saw him at the Eagle’s Nest. It was only a matter of weeks before Smallwood would don that green sweater for their first date: dinner at Sammy T’s.
The connection was instant.
“It didn’t hurt that he wasn’t bad looking,” Smallwood said of McPherson, who found Smallwood “quirky” and admired his varied interests. But, a senior nearing graduation, McPherson was wary of long-term commitments. Besides, the men, both double majors, were busy.
Smallwood – now an annual giving director at San Jose State University – studied Spanish and linguistics, and served as Class Council and Commuter Student Association president. Foreign Language Professor Maria Martinez-Mira, he said, guided him every step of the way.
McPherson – an internship coordinator for the University of California, Santa Cruz – majored in business and economics, and worked for Residence Life. He served as Honor Council president, meeting then-Vice President of Student Affairs Doug Searcy, who became a mentor and helped him apply to master’s programs.
“That opportunities exist for students to be so close to upper administration is what makes UMW so different from other schools,” said McPherson, who earned a master’s degree at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
He and Smallwood had only been dating a few months when McPherson graduated from Mary Washington in May 2012, but he came back to campus to visit. The two spent the next Valentine’s Day – their first as an official couple – indulging in cheesecake and champagne at the amphitheatre and, of course, McPherson returned for Smallwood’s graduation in 2015.
Smallwood proposed first, on a trip to Europe. But McPherson did, too, popping the question to Evan – where else? – at the amphitheatre. They settled on fall in Fredericksburg, and called Events Special Assistant Susan Worrell, for whom Aaron had interned. Then, on Nov. 2, 2019, amid the amphitheatre’s restored colonnades and pergolas, before family and friends, many of them made at Mary Washington, they wed.
“It was so special for this to be the first wedding in the new amphitheatre,” said Worrell, who called the event a stand-out among the hundreds of weddings she has directed. “It was so heartfelt; they both loved Mary Washington and were clearly devoted to each other. Everything was perfect.”
The couple’s wedding photographer, The Girl Tyler, proved it with a photo – the first professional picture McPherson and Smallwood had seen of the day – she posted on Facebook. Mary Washington re-posted it on Instagram, where it reached nearly 8,000 and was shared more than 200 times.
Across the country in Santa Cruz, California, McPherson and Smallwood felt the love.
And they’ll feel it tonight, when McPherson makes a meal for his husband that promises to be as special as that first Valentine’s dinner they shared at Sammy T’s. The one where they split an apple turnover and watched Paris, Je T’Aime at McPherson’s apartment. The one that led to a relationship, a wedding and one winning photo.
“As a gay couple you never know how you’re going to be received,” McPherson said. “To get so much love from our alma mater and alumni meant the world.”