Where minds and hearts meet

Alumni love stories that began at Regenstein Library

For the last 50 years, the Joseph Regenstein Library has been a hub connecting people and ideas, a frequent catalyst for intellectual discovery and learning—and, occasionally, for love.

In anticipation of Regenstein Library’s 50th Valentine’s Day, Vicki Anton, Assistant Director of Development, spoke to two alumni couples who met fortuitously at the Reg and came back 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. Vicki retells their stories below.

Because of two Regenstein lockers

Sem Sutter and John Easton stand together in front of Robie House
Sem C. Sutter (left) and John Q. Easton (right) in front of the Frederick C. Robie House on the University of Chicago campus

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

Beginning in 1973, John Q. Easton (PhD’81) could usually be found studying or taking an occasional cat nap in one of the comfortable green chairs on the Fourth Floor of the Reg, where educational books and journals and the Test Collection were housed. John was beginning his PhD in the Education Department’s Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistical Analysis program and studying under Benjamin Bloom (PhD’43), the Charles H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Education. As John was often studying test construction and referencing assessments coupled with their technical documentation, he chose locker 4078 on the Fourth Floor.

Sem started with a locker on the Third Floor. But after the church history books in Swift Hall were moved to the Fourth Floor of the Reg with the history texts, Sem chose locker 4086 on that 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 grabbing coffees together. 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 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, DC, 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 generously 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. Sem worked at the Library for thirty-five years, culminating in the positions of Assistant Director for Collections and then Interim Selector for Rare Books. John is Senior Fellow at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

Fifth Floor tête-à-têtes

Deirdre and Michael Gabbay stand together with a tree in the background
Deirdre (left) and Michael (right) Gabbay together on the University of Chicago campus as students

On February 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 The Structure of the Nucleus, Michael noticed “a cute woman with her hair tied up in a bun” coming towards his table. She pulled out the seat across from him, took down her hair, and sat down. 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, Michael 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 their books, 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. 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 Café 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 report spending the next few days “orbiting around the Regenstein Library,” hoping to see each other again. Later, as luck or Cupid would have it, they did, on what she called an “unfathomably cold” day in Chicago. Deirdre, all bundled up in her coat with a scarf wrapped up to her eyes, was walking to Reavis Elementary School just north of campus to do tutoring. She heard her name being called and had to pivot her whole body to see who was speaking to her. 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.

From February through May of that year, the students would often meet at the Reg, until Michael enlisted in the Navy. Michael’s submarine deployed out of Scotland and the couple embarked on a long-distance relationship that persevered through letters and late-night phone 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 PhD studies while the couple lived in Annapolis, MD. During this time, they made repeated visits to UChicago for Michael's meetings with his PhD committee. On these trips, they would always be sure to visit the Regenstein Library, returning to their “Fifth Floor haunt” and enjoying wanderings through the stacks.

Deirdre and Michael Gabbay married in 1999 and currently live in Seattle, Washington, with their two “fairly bookish” teenagers. Every February 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.

The south side or Regenstein Library in winter
The Joseph Regenstein Library (Photo by Jason Smith)