EAST YBOR — Their story started 56 years ago at College Hill Elementary. Jeraldine Williams and George Errick Shaw were second-graders in the same class. "He didn't pay any attention to me," she said. Their circles crossed more often later when he swam, played basketball and junior varsity football and she was captain of the cheerleaders at Middleton High, Class of '63. More than three decades flew by before they reacquainted at a high school reunion. Attorney Jeraldine offered to handle legal work for bail bondsman George.
That led to dinner, which led to roller skating, which led to dance lessons, cruises and a safari in South Africa — one reason why their wedding guests were told to wear African attire or stay home.
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Brown vs. Board of Education officially outlawed segregated schools in 1954, but Jeraldine and George remember sit-ins at lunch counters and pickets at theaters in the '60s.
"My father forbid me to be an activist,'' she said, so she used her brain to "make my stance."
Pretty and popular, Jeraldine graduated No. 2 in their high school class, then became the first black graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication, one of 14 black students out of 14,000.
"I went to represent,'' said Jeraldine, now 62, a probate and property lawyer practicing in the East Ybor house where she grew up. Her first job was reporting for the St. Petersburg Times.
George graduated from Florida A&M University in 1967 and was promptly drafted into the Army. He served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam, then returned to a dismal job market in Tampa.
"I put on a placard that said 'College Grad and Vet. Please hire me,' and walked Franklin Street,'' he said.
Jeraldine, who was working downtown that day, actually saw him wearing the sign and talked to him about a job. But his best offer came from an insurance agency, where he stayed three years, then quit to work for CSX, a railroad company, in Mulberry. He still works nights as a safety inspector.
George, now 63 and twice divorced, fathered three sons, taught school, studied counseling at the University of South Florida, became an independent travel agent and opened George Shaw Bail Bonds.
Jeraldine, meanwhile, married Walter Smith, former president of FAMU, and had two children while furthering her academic ascent. She earned a master of business administration degree at Clark-Atlanta University and a law degree at Florida State, and published a newspaper, Capital Outlook.
When she wasn't working in Tallahassee, she was entertaining guests, such as Muhammad Ali, or being entertained. Once, she attended a White House state dinner hosted by President Jimmy Carter, "using etiquette I learned at Tampa's all-black schools."
Prior to her divorce in 2001, Jeraldine lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, for five years where she helped monitor the country's first democratic election, sold real estate, consulted for the U.S. Department of Energy and surprised Nelson Mandela by decorating his house for a Transkei community Christmas party.
The loquacious lawyer loves to relay these adventures, and George loves to listen.
"She could be with anybody, a king,'' he said, comparing her to the supreme Diana Ross. "I'm so blessed to be her friend."
Jeraldine rolls her eyes when asked how George proposed.
"When his mother died last September, he put in the funeral notice she was survived by her son George and his fiancee, Jeraldine," she said.
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Guests in vivid African clothing and creative headdresses filled First Baptist Church of College Hill on Feb. 2.
Colorful fruit, candles, carved animals and kente cloth dotted dinner tables. Three pyramids and an African couple figurine topped the wedding cake.
"I wanted to make a bold statement,'' Jeraldine said. "I'm not very passive, you may have noticed."
Kuumba Dancers and Drummers preceded the bride down the aisle, clapping, singing and chanting mating calls.
Jeraldine flitted behind them like a lacy butterfly, spreading her wings to show off a white-on-white Nigerian wedding ensemble.
The Rev. Abe Brown officiated for his former high school students, who changed outfits two more times.
For the Cornish hen and squash dinner — flowing white Senegalese gowns with metallic gold sunbursts.
For dancing the fox trot, Mississippi Mudslide, cha cha and Chinese Checkers at the Tampa Club— earth-tone eyelet boubous from Nigeria.
Finally ready to set a joint course, old friends, now best friends, sailed through not one, but two honeymoons — a cruise to Mexico in February and, last month, to the Mediterranean, embarking on their own adventures.
Amy Scherzer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3332.