Where minds and hearts meet: Love stories from Regenstein Library

Alumni couples share stories of romance that blossomed in hub for learning

For the last five decades, the University of Chicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library has been a frequent catalyst for intellectual discovery and learning—and, occasionally, for love.  

Since its dedication on Oct. 31, 1970, Regenstein Library has been a hub connecting people and ideas, often in ways that extend far beyond campus. In anticipation of the Reg’s 50th Valentine’s Day, UChicago alumni couples recounted their fortuitous first meetings, and how they returned to the Library and each other again and again.

Each couple sat together as they told their tales over Zoom—lovingly interrupting, finishing each other’s sentences. They shared their experiences with Vicki Anton, assistant director of development at the University of Chicago Library, who retells their stories below.

Neighboring lockers

Sem C. Sutter, AM’73, PhD’82, AM’85, came to the University of Chicago to pursue his interest in religious studies and the social and political history of Europe. It was 1972, and at two years old, the Regenstein Library still had “a new feeling to it.”

Beginning the following year, John Q. Easton, PhD’81, could most often be found studying or taking an occasional cat nap in one of the comfortable green chairs on the fourth floor of the Reg, which housed educational books and journals and the Test Collection. John was beginning his PhD in the Education Department’s Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistical Analysis program. To better access necessary documents, he chose a locker on the fourth floor.

Sem’s first locker was on the third floor. But after the church history books in Swift Hall were moved to sit with the history texts on the fourth floor of the Reg, Sem chose a new locker on the same level—in the same bank as John’s. Fate, or the glory of a more centralized Library system, had intervened. 

One day, Sem and John saw each other at their lockers for the first time. They smiled and said hello. The following day, they ran into each other at their lockers again. They started chatting, which led to coffees. Soon, they were regularly getting snacks at the basement vending machines.

Sem and John became fast friends. Their coffee talks evolved into longer lunches together at the nearby Blue Gargoyle café. The romantic relationship evolved later, and the two became a couple in 1978, moving in together that fall. They were married in 2014 in Washington, D.C., where John served as director of the Institute of Education Sciences during the Obama administration.

Sem and John currently live in Hyde Park and are longtime members of the Library Society. In 2017, they endowed the Sem C. Sutter and John Q. Easton Fund for German Studies to support the acquisition and preservation of materials for the study of the history and culture of German-speaking Europe in the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center. Now retired, Sem worked at the Library for 35 years, culminating as assistant director for collections and then interim selector for rare books. John is the senior fellow at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

Fifth floor tête-à-têtes

On Feb. 8, 1988, Michael Gabbay, SM’87, PhD’97, was a graduate student in physics studying on the fifth floor of the Regenstein Library. As usual, he was camped out at one of the long open tables. In the midst of reading Structure of the Nucleus, Michael noticed “a cute woman with her hair tied up in a bun” coming toward his table. She pulled out the seat across from him, took down her hair, and sat. Michael noted her “long, beautiful, blonde hair” as she began reading a red-covered copy of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes for her humanities class. A few minutes later, he asked this stranger if she had a calculator. It was an excuse to say hello. He didn’t realize that stranger—math major Deirdre Farrell—would later become Deirdre Gabbay, AB’91.

In between reading, the students chatted and decided to take a study break together. They walked down to the basement of the Reg to pick up teas and Snickers bars at Ex Libris Café. Deirdre thought it odd that this stranger never finished his candy bar. Michael didn’t want to make a bad first impression by getting chocolate and caramel stuck between his teeth.

After their Ex Libris tête-à-tête—and studying a bit more on the fifth floor—Michael and Deirdre went their separate ways, both saying, “Maybe I’ll see you around again.”

Despite the seemingly nonchalant goodbyes, both students spent the next few days “orbiting around the Regenstein Library,” hoping to see the other. As luck or Cupid would have it, they did—on what Deirdre called an “unfathomably cold” day in Chicago. All bundled up in her coat with a scarf wrapped up to her eyes, she was walking to Reavis Elementary School just north of campus to do tutoring. She heard her name being called. It was Michael.

For their first official date, Deirdre and Michael explored the holdings on display at the Oriental Institute. However, their “spot” and usual meeting place was the fifth floor of the Reg. Michael, in particular, had a fondness for taking study breaks to roam the Regenstein Library’s stacks and “finding the quirkiest things in the endless vertical rabbit warrens.” During one of their many days in the Reg, Michael brought Deirdre into a cold and remote section of the stacks to show her a journal called Quick Frozen Foods. Deirdre smiled and asked, “To what degree does someone have to investigate the stacks to find such an obscure book?” It was intellectual curiosity at its finest, she thought.

The pair met often at the Reg from February through May of 1988, when Michael enlisted in the Navy. His submarine deployed out of Scotland, and the couple embarked on a long-distance relationship through letters and late-night calls—racking up expensive phone bills between the University of Chicago campus and the officer’s club in the base.

After serving in the Navy, Michael resumed his Ph.D. studies while the couple lived in Annapolis, Maryland. During this time, they made repeated visits to UChicago for Michael’s meetings with his Ph.D. committee. On these trips, they would be sure to visit the Regenstein Library, returning to their “fifth floor haunt” and enjoying wanderings through the stacks.

Michael and Deirdre Gabbay married in 1999 and currently live in Seattle, Washington, with their two “fairly bookish” teenagers. Every Feb. 8, the couple celebrates the anniversary of their meeting in the Reg. Deirdre’s parents, J. Paul Farrell, SB’61, and Stephanie K. Farrell, AB’62, also met at the University of Chicago.

—A version of this story was first published by the University of Chicago Library.