For one Franklin couple, love blossomed in an AOL chat room.
An open conversation between Tobey and Heidi Unruh about music in an MTV-themed chat room turned into a request for a private conversation. That evolved into phone calls, emails and letters.
Before the Internet became the foundation of everything we do, the Unruhs used it to find each other. The couple started chatting online, and their relationship blossomed into a serious commitment.
Within a year, they were married. Now, the Franklin duo have two children, a marriage that’s lasted 17 years and a truly modern love story.
“There just seemed to be this driving force that we weren’t going to give up on this, whether we knew it, or we were committed to each other,” Tobey Unruh said. “We saw the bond there, and that’s carried us through all of this.”
Heidi Unruh, 19, was living in California at the time, attending college while working as a waitress at Olive Garden. Tobey Unruh had just moved to Minnesota to take a job as a computer designer for an agricultural company, and the 20-year-old used the Internet during his down time after work.
One night in November 1996, they were in an MTV chat room with people from all over the world. In the course of the discussion, Tobey Unruh sent a private message to Heidi Unruh.
“We just started talking, and it turned into a friendship,” she said.
That first private message turned into emails, then they exchanged photos of each other, then phone calls. For three months, they talked regularly. Heidi Unruh would call during breaks in her class schedule.
Their conversation meandered from their families to the friends to the types of movies, music and pop culture they enjoyed.
“We couldn’t wait to get back home and tell each other how our day went,” Tobey Unruh said. “It clicked, we could not say enough to each other.”
Living so far apart, there was a three-hour time difference between them. When she got off her shift at work, she’d call him. Tobey Unruh slept with the phone next to his bed and around 3 a.m. would get a call from her.
For their first official “date,” on Thanksgiving night, they got on the phone and agreed to watch the same movie together — “Bed of Roses,” a romantic comedy starring Christian Slater and Mary Stuart Masterson. They carefully synced up when they’d put the tape in the VCR, when they’d push play and when they’d stop it if they had to pause.
“If it were today, we question if it would have worked,” Tobey Unruh said. “The distance and the lack of technology, it made us work for it.”
With the newness of the Internet, friends and family reacted with trepidation to the news that the couple had found each other online. Tobey Unruh’s family was happy that he had found someone that he cared about but secretly worried who this person across the country would be.
Heidi Unruh’s family and friends warned her to be extremely careful and tried to discourage them.
“I grew up near L.A., and in California, you assume the worst of everybody. They thought I was crazy, that this was ridiculous,” Heidi Unruh said.
But even the disapproval didn’t sway the couple.
Just months after their initial exchange online, they agreed to meet. Tobey Unruh flew from Minnesota to Los Angeles, where he met the woman he had been dating online for the first time — on Valentine’s Day.
“That was the point when, once he got out there, that it was real,” Heidi Unruh said. “By the time he flew out here, we knew everything about each other. Our guards had been down, and there wasn’t anything to hide.”
That trip proved to be the catalyst that solidified their relationship. Heidi Unruh got into an emotional fight with her mother and stepfather after Tobey Unruh’s visit. They wanted her to end the relationship, to slow down, to not do anything reckless.
But 19-year-old Heidi Unruh was headstrong and refused to listen. After multiple nights of fighting, she decided to leave home. She packed her most necessary belongings in a few bags, had a friend drive her to the airport and moved to Minnesota.
“Everyone says I ran away. I didn’t, I moved in the middle of the night,” she said with a smile.
Tobey Unruh proposed to her a week after arriving, and they were married in 1997.
Looking back, the Unruhs admit that the story of their roller-coaster romance is unusual. For a long time, they agreed not to tell their children, Nick and Madelyn, about how they met.
“We regret the way it happened, but we believe it might not have happened otherwise,” Tobey Unruh said.
Despite going against her parents wishes, the family reconciled once they were married.
The couple bounced around over the next few years — living in Oklahoma near some of Tobey Unruh’s family, then moving to Tennessee after Heidi Unruh’s parents retired, left California and settled in the eastern part of the state.
The Unruhs came to live in Franklin almost 11 years ago, and they’ve been residents here ever since.
Tobey Unruh works on computers for FedEx, while Heidi Unruh has a job at a Franklin accounting firm. Their kids Nick, 16, and Madelyn, 13, attend Franklin schools.
As their relationship predates all of the popular online dating sites and most facets of the Internet that are popular today, the Unruhs can’t really offer any advice for how to approach digital romance.
They weren’t looking for a relationship; one just materialized, much like if you had a chance encounter at a coffee shop or bookstore.
“Really, is it any different from meeting someone at a bar or anywhere else?” Tobey Unruh said. “It’s like any other relationship — taking time to get to know each other before jumping right in.”
Tobie and Heidi Unruh
Children: Nick, 16, and Madelyn, 13
How they met: Became friends in an MTV chat room on AOL