Carlton Ward Jr. photographed hundreds of species of plants and animals, many new to science and seen for the first time. The images he created empower nature conservancy projects.
Law student Suzie Eldridge helped start two nonprofit programs focusing on emotional health issues, especially for young women.
A mutual friend introduced them, seeing how they saw the Big Picture, from the fragility of the ecosystem to the frailty of humanity.
Click! Ward zoomed in, capturing Eldridge's heart.
Ward, great-grandson of Doyle Carlton, a Florida governor and a founder of the law firm that became Carlton Fields, interned at the Smithsonian Institution, which then hired him to shoot photos in Gabon. That led to his first book, The Edge of Africa, in 2003.
He could have stayed on with the Smithsonian, but instead followed the pull of his roots to document working ranches threatened by sprawl. "It felt hypocritical to be talking conservation in Africa when Florida was losing 200,000 acres a year to development," said Ward, 34.
The project produced Florida Cowboys: Keepers of the Last Frontier.
But it left little time for romance.
Eldridge, a 29-year-old graduate of Bates College, directed the girls' health initiative at the Ophelia Project for three years. In 2007 she became the managing director of University of South Florida Hope House for Eating Disorders.
When a South Tampa friend invited Ward and Eldridge to a charity benefit in 2007, "it had been a while between dates," Ward said. "I had to get the hole in the seat of my 13-year-old truck patched before I picked Suzie up."
Soon they were starting their days running on Bayshore Boulevard. Weekends, they camped, shot guns and picked oranges at Limestone, Ward's family's ranch near Wauchula.
Traveling together stretched and strengthened the friendship.
"Like the New Year's in Hope Town on the Abaco islands in the Bahamas," said Eldridge. She recalls being "soaked and freezing" in a storm that Ward called "character building.''
One summer they surfed in Brazil.
In Cuba, Ward cataloged American cowboys for a cattle industry assignment while Eldridge practiced her Spanish.
The couple planned one more big adventure before Eldridge enrolled in Stetson University College of Law in fall 2009.
"It was a crazy summer,'' she said. "Carlton had been in Asia for three weeks, home for two weeks, and we left for Thailand."
Their departure was so hectic, said Eldridge, that she took his photo for the book jacket on the way to the airport.
No way did he have time to buy a ring.
No reason to notice he locked his shaving kit in the hotel safe.
No suspicions when he let waves glide their boards to shore after surfing on Nai Harn Beach.
"I turned to my right and he's in a foot of water, on his knee," she said. The ring made it out of the pocket of his board shorts pocket safely onto her finger. "I still can't stop smiling," she said.
That evening, back on the beach, they lit a wish lantern. Hot air filled its rice paper frame, sending their wishes aloft.
Back in Tampa, wedding planning and law school made a stressful mix. To unwind, the couple would throw a baseball in Ward's Davis Islands yard.
"You can't think of anything except what's coming directly at you," he said.
Their childhood pastors, the Revs. Emily Anderson and Tom Farmer, officiated at a June 5 wedding at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church.
Guests danced at the Tampa Yacht Club, ate key lime blueberry wedding cake and filled the sky with 50 wish lanterns soaring for Mr. and Mrs. Ward.
Heart Beat is a summer series that features recent intriguing stories of love and marriage. Amy Scherzer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3332.