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A little voice led her toward love

Jo-An Noojin and Bill Hendry lost their first spouses to cancer after marriages of at least 50 years. They found each other at a church function.

Photo courtesy of the Hendry Family

Jo-An Noojin and Bill Hendry lost their first spouses to cancer after marriages of at least 50 years. They found each other at a church function.

BALLAST POINT

Jo-An Noojin talks to God most every day. In their many conversations, "sometimes the still, small voice" gets lost, she says, or she's just not listening. She is a devoted Sunday churchgoer, but it was a Wednesday in January 2007 when Jo-An heard and heeded a divine message to attend the midweek service. Bill Hendry, a man she had never met, was there that night, too, a recent widower seeking social as well as spiritual fulfillment.

• • •

Realtor Bill Hendry, 79, joined the Wednesday night regulars at Davis Islands Baptist Church after his wife, Ordy, died of cancer in June 2006. They had been married 51 years.

For six bucks, the Tampa native shared a hot meal with a couple of hundred friendly faces before the service. It wasn't the baked ziti or chicken Parmesan he was after.

"It's not the cooking, it's the eating by yourself," said Bill, who opened Hendry & Associates real estate and investment services with his wife in 1987, which they later sold to Tam-Bay Realty.

Jo-An, 73, a charter member of the church, lost her husband of 50 years, Bob Noojin, to lung cancer in 2005. She is not a Wednesday worshiper, she said, and planned to go out to dinner that particular day with her daughter.

"I'd had my hair done,'' she recalled, "and usually would have gone home and changed into something comfortable."

Waiting for her daughter's call, Jo-An said she heard — and dismissed — a voice in her head.

"It said, 'You could go to church,' " she said.

An hour later, she heard it again. "I thought it must be the Holy Spirit talking to me,'' she said.

She decided to go. A friend told her to get there early to find a parking place.

"I told God I was leaving if there wasn't a parking place,'' she said with a grin.

A space awaited her … and Cupid, in the form of Carol Mathews Smith, whom she had met on a group trip to Venice. Smith had already figured Jo-An would be a good match for Bill, so she was happy to see her that night. Greeting her, she pumped Jo-An for information: "Do you date? Do you want to? Do you know Bill Hendry?''

Jo-An answered "no" to all three queries. But Smith pledged her matchmaking skills anyway.

Jo-An didn't have to wait long. Smith suddenly spied Bill across the crowded lobby and pulled him over to meet Jo-An.

They exchanged polite hellos. They didn't sit together, and she didn't meet his glance when she exited.

"I walked right by him,'' Jo-An said, "until I heard 'Slow down' in my head — the Holy Spirit again."

She stopped. "I'll call you," he said.

"Please do,'' she said to her surprise. "I looked around to see who said that.''

That evening, she took out her journal and wrote: I don't want to date or marry. I don't want to take care of anyone again.

Then, she said, God told her, "This really isn't about you."

Days later, over dinner at Bonefish Grill, Bill and Jo-An got to know each other. They talked about being caregivers and of grieving. She realized Ordy had been in her community Bible study group years ago. They each have three children, and between them, 11 grandchildren. She's artistic; he plays tennis.

Neither had been on a date for 50 years.

That night, Jo-An's journal entry said: I hope we can just be friends.

In April, Bill asked Jo-An to join his family for Easter brunch at the yacht club.

She declined. "I wasn't ready for that,'' she said.

But she couldn't sleep. She called early the next morning to say she had changed her mind.

"I suppose we became an item then,'' said Bill. They would listen to music and go to movies and baseball games together.

Often, Jo-An fixed dinner at her Palma Ceia townhouse.

"Then he'd go home to a big, empty house,'' she said. Bill lives on 5 acres at the southern tip of Bayshore Boulevard, fronting Hillsborough Bay. His parents bought the property in 1945.

"My son Haynes lives next door and he would see my headlights coming in at night,'' said Bill.

Last July, when Bill asked Jo-An to marry him, Haynes heard the news at the yacht club.

"When were you going to tell me?'' he teased his father.

"He was going to church so much he was either the preacher or going after somebody,'' Haynes said, obviously delighted for him.

Two dozen family members witnessed their Jan. 3 wedding at South Tampa Fellowship in Ballast Point, formerly the Davis Islands church. And that's where you'll find the newlyweds Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings.

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

A little voice led her toward love 07/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2008 4:31am]
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