She was just 17, and he was a lifeguard

She was the 17-year-old girl in the red bikini.                         

And he was the smooth 22-year-old lifeguard, law student and bartender who paged her to his chair at the local swimming pool in the summer of 1984. He invited her to a party, and she accepted. They dated on and off for seven years, facing the struggles of any young couple trying to figure out if they are truly compatible.
Today is Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. It’s also the 14th wedding anniversary of Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), 44, and his wife, Robyn, 38. It’s also the day the couple got engaged in 1991 and then married in 1992.

To watch them interact in his fifth-floor Longworth office is to see a couple that has weathered a lot — three children, a golden retriever, two cats, a sheltie dog, two cross-country moves, laughter, tears, joy, anger, annoyance and still more laughter.

There have been hard times for sure. Just after he was elected in 1997, things were difficult as he adjusted to Congress. “For the first four months, we didn’t see him at all,” she recalls. “Even when he was home he was still never home because he was in meeting after meeting after meeting. I thought that was the way it was going to be forever.”

So they packed up the house and the children and moved to Washington on Memorial Day weekend in 1999. But Robyn soon discovered that late-night votes and her husband’s weekend trips back to the district would continue to steal him away. His family rarely saw him.

In 2001, the family sold the house in Washington and returned to Nebraska. “Sept. 11 was my final ‘I’m out of here,’” she says. “It just wasn’t working. I was never comfortable here.”

Soon enough, the Terrys adjusted to life in Congress, and they began to carve out more time to spend as a family and with each other.

How did they survive the rough patches?

“He’s a good listener when told what to do,” Robyn says, laughing.

Looking back to the day they met at the Nebraska pool, Robyn can’t stop smiling and laughing about the tactic he used to meet her, likely a tactic he had used to meet other girls. “No comment,” he says when asked about how many times he had used the ploy.

“Who is turning a lifeguard down?” she asks, obviously unconcerned. “I mean, come on!” (Especially a lifeguard who was required to wear a blue Speedo underneath his swim trunks.)

After seven years of dating, they decided they couldn’t live without each other. But the way they each arrived at the decision took separate twists and turns.

“It was a maturation process,” Terry says. “I had to get through law school, get established. There was a time in our courtship when you come to realize. I dated someone else and came back to Robyn. That was the maturation process — it just took seven years.

“There was no fireworks or magic moment. It just grew to the point where I just knew I didn’t want to be with anyone else but her.”

And when did she know? “It was kind of odd,” she says, explaining that she, too, dated others along the way. “It was kind of from the start. Maybe it was just my bulldog nature. I felt like I grew more with him.”

Terry adds, “I got her to register as a Republican.”

She chides back, “Yeah, right before you went on a date with someone else.”

More seriously, he says, “I consider this a partnership. She doesn’t get to vote or tell me how to vote, but we do everything together in the process.”

The subject of extramarital affairs in Washington comes up and how commonplace they are, and the couple is candid. “If I ever started to go places they didn’t know, they’d call her,” Terry says, explaining how intricately involved his wife is with his aides. “It’s trust. It’s I don’t want to do anything like that, and no one on my staff would ever let me do that anyway.”

Robyn sees infidelity in another light: “You’re not only shaming your spouse but your entire office and the seat you represent.”

It is an issue they have had to address in terms of perception. At one point they decided that Terry had to stop attending dinners with the female district director because people began wondering if the young woman was the congressman’s wife.

“We are very careful with even staff he goes anywhere with,” Robyn says. “I would go ballistic if someone came up and said, ‘Did you know your husband did dadadadada?’”

So how do they make it work?

“We kid, we tease,” offers Robyn. “That helps a lot because it takes the edge off the reality of this sort of life.”

“She brings up the Speedo a lot,” he says, smiling at her.

She grows more serious when she says, “I guarantee if it came to us or this, this would gone in a heartbeat. It’s probably how I know I can accept the whole lifestyle.”

Valentine’s Day is undoubtedly special. Robyn’s grandparents married on Valentine’s Day (and they are still going strong). Terry knew how special the day was for her and it was a given that they, too, would get engaged and wed on Valentine’s Day.

Though the proposal was less traditionally romantic than one might expect, they remember the moment fondly. “Gimme my ring gimmee my ring,” she says, laughing at the memory. He adds, “There was no knee. It was a tackle.”

The story of how they met may be funny, but the Terrys are sentimental. They own the lifeguard chair that Terry sat in when he paged the “girl in the red bikini.” It sits in their garage.