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From This Day: Mr. Nice Guy turns out to be the Real McCoy

Laura Westerman and Chris Tanner met on the first day of law school in 2007. A few years later, “Chris got down on one knee, on the spot where we first met,” and proposed, Laura says.

Courtesy of Kimberly Photography

Laura Westerman and Chris Tanner met on the first day of law school in 2007. A few years later, “Chris got down on one knee, on the spot where we first met,” and proposed, Laura says.

TAMPA

Too nice, thought Laura Westerman. Any day now, Chris Tanner would drop the Mr. Nice Guy act and reveal the White House insider whose desk was mere steps from the Oval Office. How did such a sweetheart get into politics, a not-so-nice business?

"He's nice to everyone," Laura said. "Not a work-the-room kind of guy at all. There's a genuine innocence about him. . . . He stays positive even in bad situations."

Her husband lights up at hearing her words. Another pinch-me moment in a life full of unexpected opportunities. If this is a dream, he never wants to be awakened.

Chris anticipated going to medical school after graduation from Florida State in 2003. During his senior year, his father, Steven Tanner, then 52, suffered a stroke. Chris and his younger brother, Walker, an FSU sophomore at that time, returned to Tampa to run the family business, Tanner Paints.

The illness and partial paralysis turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Chris says of his dad's eventual "physical and spiritual" recovery. Meanwhile, working nights at a Tampa hospital put an end to Chris' medical ambition.

Instead, a conversation with a stranger at his sister's Plant High volleyball game brought an invitation to visit the South Tampa Bush-Cheney campaign center.

"I wasn't . . . I'm not really a political animal," said the Tampa native. "I'd always voted, but I never made a phone call, never made a donation."

Volunteering "opened my eyes to a world I didn't know existed," he said, prompting him to enroll in law school in fall 2005. He was heading to FSU when a campaign boss had another idea: a White House internship.

A few months later, Chris was hired as an assistant to President Bush's senior adviser Karl Rove.

"It happened so fast. I went from knowing nothing about politics to an office in the West Wing."

Law school was deferred for two years, timed just right to meet Laura there the very first day. Not that their introduction, at an orientation barbecue, earned a pinch-me.

"Only on my end," Chris said. "Instant attraction for me, but she had a boyfriend." Still, identical class schedules brought them together all the time, often studying with Jimmy Buffett streaming in the background. Discussions carried over from the classroom — philosophical, constitutional, religious — lasted all night.

"We tend to disagree on small issues but agree on the bigger issues," said Laura, a registered independent voter. "And arguments are beneficial in law school."

She was born in Bethlehem, Pa., and her grandfather and parents worked for Bethlehem Steel.

Finally, in their last year of school, previous relationships ended, the couple realized how much they meant to each other. He really is that nice, Laura thought.

Two long years of weekend commuting followed graduation in May 2010. Laura, 29, joined an Orlando law firm as a financial services litigator representing banks. This month she moves to Tampa to join the firm's new office here. Chris, 32, stayed in Tallahassee, overseeing state land environmental issues for chief financial officer Jeff Atwater. He hopes to work from a local office soon.

One Saturday in July 2011, after lazing by the pool and grabbing lunch, they went off to romp on the law school lawn with their dog, named John Smoltz.

"Chris got down on one knee, on the spot where we first met," said Laura. A marriage proposal in swim suits was the last thing she expected.

The couple married Oct. 13 at Tampa Bay Watch educational facility in Tierra Verde, next to Fort De Soto Park. Other than forgetting the wedding license (quickly retrieved from the hotel) and Pastor Ken Schick forgetting their vows, it was perfect.

Reciting vows "was even better at the reception, on the balcony of a big beach house on stilts," recalled Chris. "Everyone gathered for a picture and they all leaned in to hear."

Another pinch-me moment.

Amy Scherzer can be reached at ascherzer@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3332.

From This Day: Mr. Nice Guy turns out to be the Real McCoy 11/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 10, 2012 3:30am]

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