Shelli Sonstein and John Schaninger
Dec. 18, 2016, in Stockton, N.J.
As cohost of the Jim Kerr Rock and Roll Morning Show, Shelli brings classic tracks and chat to her listeners on Q104.3 NYC. The gig also requires the Mount Airy native to create conversational commercials for advertisers.
About 10 years ago, she started singing the praises of a North Jersey convenience store chain, and thus met the guy who was then its vice president of marketing: John.
"He's really, really nice," she said. And that's not all: "He has the look that I really like. Tall, thin, kind of longish, gray hair." She pegged him for a rock-and-roll kind of guy even before he told her writing songs and playing guitar were among his passions.
John, who grew up in Allentown, noticed Shelli, too. "She was really great to work with, and she's very attractive, very smart, very cosmopolitan. And very engaged in the things she believes in." For example, she uses her Sonstein Sundays show to bring awareness to the health issues of the 9/11 first-responders and participates in many fund-raisers supporting them.
After one of their business meetings in 2011, Shelli took a risk: "If you're ever down in Neptune City, give me a call," she wrote in an email. John knew that's where Shelli lived, but he misunderstood her intent. "I thought she was just being nice to a client."
At subsequent meetings and via email, both were a bit flirtatious, but so mildly that the other was never really certain of it.
Then in 2012, John bought an 1852 farmhouse in Upper Black Eddy, Bucks County, and sent Shelli many photos. The house was beautiful, but what Shelli most wanted to know was how many people lived in it. Maybe this guy was not even available. She and her station's midday jock came up with a plan: "Is your significant other going to redecorate it?" she asked. His "she's not so significant anymore" reply made her smile.
In early 2013, John googled Shelli and found a crazy video she made of an offering on behalf of her beloved Jersey Devils, who weren't doing so hot. "I had tied my lucky red thong to a balloon and sent it up to the hockey gods," Shelli said.
That Valentine's Day, John, now 61, sent Shelli, 62, his most flirty, least worky email yet: "I know you're not wearing your red thong, so what are you wearing today?"
Shelli didn't flinch. "You're right," she wrote. "I'm wearing my Stone Pony thong, though."
That's when John knew there was something between them. He asked if he'd see her at the forthcoming Who and Elvis Costello show. "We don't get free tickets," she said. "I happen to have an extra ticket," he replied. "If you're asking if I'd like to go with you, I'd love to," she said.
John's research included talking to the chef at Ca Va, a midtown restaurant. They had great food, great conversation, and a great time at the concert. John walked Shelli to the 34th Street subway entrance, where they had their first kiss.
John and Shelli had two previous marriages -- short first ones when they were very young, and longer second ones. Both have adult children: John has a son, Mike; Shelli has two sons, Aaron and Ryan, and a daughter, Dina. She also has two grandchildren, Zach, now 4, and Evan, 1½.
Shelli and John flirted up a storm the week after their first date, but Date Two had to wait while she visited her kids and oldest grandson in Los Angeles. John emailed upon her return but did not get the answer he hoped for.
"I had such a great time," Shelli said. "But I have to be honest. A guy I dated before reached out to me, and I wonder if I should see if there's still something there." John said he understood. But truth was, he did not. He emailed back moments later, telling Shelli he thought she was making a mistake. Their date held much promise, he said, and things had already failed to work with the other guy.
His email came with lyrics to an original song, "So Here We Are":
We could take a chance on new romance ... I could be the one you've never known.
"I was so taken with the fact John was fighting for me," Shelli remembered. "It would be ridiculous not to see what was there."
Their second date was as lovely as the first. That fall, Shelli moved in to the Upper Black Eddy farmhouse they now share.
In February 2016, on the third anniversary of their first date, the couple had tickets to see Hughie on Broadway. Checked into their hotel with time to spare, John had a suggestion: "Why don't we go to that subway stop so we can reenact our first kiss?"
"I envisioned a proposal, but at the same time was worried that it wasn't going to happen," Shelli said. "I was thinking to myself, 'If it doesn't happen, it doesn't mean he doesn't love you. It's OK!' " Shelli said.
Shelli married the first time after promising her dad she wouldn't move to Atlanta with her boyfriend without marrying. When she married again, she had a child and thought in 1980 that marrying was the only option. With John, "I just really wanted to marry him, and the fact that I was waiting for a proposal was driving me a little crazy!"
They didn't find the exact spot, but at an entrance to the right train, they kissed. "That wasn't much of a kiss!" John teased, so she gave him a really good one.
John pulled a ring out of his coat pocket.
The waiting hadn't prepared Shelli for how his actual proposal would feel.
"Oh, my god, I don't believe this!" she said. "I just don't believe this!"
Somehow she said yes and they made it to the show, but even Forrest Whittaker, one of her favorites, could not make her focus.
The couple married at Prallsville Mills. John's son walked him down the aisle to an acoustic version of the Alman Brothers' "Little Martha," and Shelli's sons escorted her to the sounds of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." Shelli's daughter was her maid of honor, and her oldest grandson the ring bearer.
Jim, Shelli's radio cohost and friend of nearly 40 years, became ordained to perform the mostly nonreligious ceremony, which did include the Jewish traditions of standing beneath the chuppah and breaking a glass in a nod to Shelli's heritage. Jim said he always thought officiants had magical powers to marry people, but officiating made him realize there was no magic power to it -- the magic was in the couple finding each other.
The wedding was not only photographed, but sketched -- by friend of the couple and courtroom artist Elizabeth Williams. A guitarist played during cocktail hour and dinner, then a DJ took over. The couple's first dance was to the song John had sent to Shelli -- as a surprise to the bride, he'd made a studio recording with himself on vocals and guitar.
Each of the couple's four children gave a reception speech. "All of them said things you wouldn't normally get to hear except at your own funeral," Shelli said. It meant a lot.
"When I walked down the stairs to the aisle, all I saw was John's face," Shelli said. "I locked eyes with him, and I was just so happy."
"She had worried so much about her dress -- she wanted me to love it -- and I didn't even notice the dress," John said. "I was just looking at her, at the look on her face."
A bargain: Shelli had picked out a black-and-beige $5,000 dress. She told John her selection was poofy at the bottom, and he looked concerned. She showed him pictures of other dresses in a similar style, and he said it was up to her, but if she really wanted his opinion, he preferred something a little more fitted. She went back to the shopping board, and found a different one at one-fifth the price.
The splurge: John's custom-made suit cost more than her dress, but the real splurge was photographers Danny Sanchez and Suzanne Sutcliffe.
A week in St. Martin, then a week at home, to be followed by a European riverboat cruise this summer.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Officiant: Jim Kerr, the bride's radio cohost and friend of the couple who became ordained online.
Venue: Prallsville Mills, Stockton, N.J.
Food: Crave Events Group, sales manager Kate Hanly.
Photography: Sanchez Sutcliffe Photographers, Red Bank, N.J.
Artist: Elizabeth Williams, New York.
Flowers: Mark Bryan, Upper Black Eddy.
Dress: BHLDN, New York.