A True to AU Love Story
We know them as Dr. Whitaker and Mrs. Whitaker. But to each other, they are just Evans and Diane. Two dreamers who were passionate about people and Christian higher education finally found each other on the campus of Belmont University. This is the story about how they met and fell in love. Out of 25 years of marriage (this April!), they have been at Anderson University for 20 of them. And they wouldn’t change a thing.
It was 1997. Diane Owen was bustling around, chatting with students as they made their housing selections in the lobby of Freeman Hall at Belmont University. Evans Whitaker had just been hired in the Office of Development and was passing through with his administrative assistant when he saw her, clearly in her element. She was right at home behind the housing table, never running out of smiles and kind words for the students coming and going.
“Who’s that?” He turned to his assistant. “Oh! Well…that’s Diane Owen.”
Diane had started working at her alma mater, Belmont University, right after graduation. She appreciated that her role in the Office of Admission allowed her to meet so many people but disliked not being able to follow up with them beyond their enrollment. The joy of truly knowing and investing in people brought her to her next job as a residence director in Hail Hall. “Evans says he had to go to ‘Hail’ to find me,” she jokes.
Still thinking about the beautiful blonde with the kind smile, Dr. Whitaker kept inventing excuses to talk to her.
“I kind of blew him off, and then he called me a few weeks later and asked if he could take me to lunch. I said I can’t go, students are moving out, but I proceeded to talk to him. He jokes that I was turning him down, but not really. I was not turning him down because I did not want to go. I literally just knew it was best if I stayed on campus. So, we ultimately went to lunch.”
He was smart about it—he knew lunch would feel more casual, with less pressure than a dinner date. However, the date still did not go as expected.
Right before they went out, Diane told her friend she was going to lunch with “that new guy in Development.” Her friend said, “Diane, he’s married!”
“I was like, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’ So we went to lunch and I gave him 50 questions. ‘Are you sure you’ve never been married?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you sure you don’t have any kids?’ ‘Yes.’ It turns out there were two new guys that worked in Development, and Evans was not the married guy. But I was super suspect on our first date.”
To take Diane on a date, Dr. Whitaker had to knock on Hail Hall’s lobby door, get someone to let him in, and then use the lobby phone to call up to her apartment on the second floor to tell her he was there. “I love that he got to see what real student life was like. He’d decorate Christmas trees with my students in the lobby. I had all the international students and it was kind of set up like Village Hall at AU. So, I love that he got to see that.”
Dr. Whitaker was not phased by lobby phone calls or unexpected games of more than 20 questions. “First, I told him no, and then I interrogated him on our first date. But Evans has a vision for everything, and he had waited a long time to find me. He was 36 when we got married, and I was 31.”
Though perhaps a rocky start, was it love at first sight? “After I got over the inquisition, I realized he was a very special guy early on. We found lots of similar interests. We both feel very passionate about Christian higher education. We’re very lucky. I started as a staff member right out of college, so I just understood in a very different way. We probably clicked early on because of our faith and our vision for how we could use our personal gifts to make a difference for the Kingdom of God.”
They started dreaming together very quickly, which is how Diane knew things were getting serious. “I think you start talking about the future more and the ‘what-ifs’ more.” The what-ifs and the dreams were big. Dr. Whitaker shared that he felt called to be a college president someday. “So we started saying things like, ‘this is what we’d do if we were at this school.’ We thought that was a pipe dream. We were young.”
To be fair, Dr. Whitaker had grand, romantic plans for proposing to Diane. The proposal was supposed to happen on a day trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a park with a beautiful walking bridge. She unknowingly altered the plans by agreeing to switch shifts with another RD who was supposed to be on duty that weekend. So, when we asked for their proposal story, Diane couldn’t help but chuckle. “It was pathetic. What ended up happening was, I came to his apartment to help him with his car, and he just had it in his mind he was going to be engaged that weekend. So he asked me to marry him in between working on his car and baking slice and bake cookies. I thought, ‘this is pathetic.’”
“I had it all planned and you messed it up!” Dr. Whitaker said.
“So it was not at all glamorous, but in reality, that’s really more true to who we are.”
Their wedding story aligns well with their proposal. It was in the chapel at Gardner-Webb University, in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. A fancy Nashville wedding was more to Diane’s taste, but the health of family members kept their wedding close to home. “Looking back, I'm super grateful. It really simplified everything.”
They ended up staying at a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of Atlanta on their way to the Virgin Islands for their honeymoon. “It was super fancy. In our room, there was a refrigerator with little painted bottles of raspberry tea and water and all of their dishes were painted glasses and it all felt very special. Well, of course, Evans talked them into selling us these dishes wholesale.” Those glasses came with them to Anderson, and the Whitakers use them for events on campus. It’s one small way their love story reflects that special feeling the people of Anderson feel.
Their journey together began with a shared passion for people, a love for God and a visionary mindset for Christian higher education. Now, after 20 years at Anderson University and 25 years as the Whitakers, the pipe dreams they bonded over have materialized into a thriving university built on their unique vision for a college presidency.
There are more pages to the Whitakers' story waiting to be written.