Love was in the air during the annual Senior Citizens Valentine Gala at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens on Feb. 14.
Representatives for the Birmingham Park and Recreation Board offered entertainment, food and fun for more than 200 senior citizens from the Birmingham metro area. Attendees were treated to three dance shows by the Hawkins Park Line Dance Divas; a rendition of “My Funny Valentine” on trumpet by Adolphus “Chief” Williams; and a performance of Etta James’s classic love song, “At Last,” by Connie Lewis. Seniors enjoyed door prizes and a lunch with chicken, green beans, yeast roll, iced tea and either red velvet, chocolate or yellow cake for desert.
Everyone felt the love when dance instructor Aaron Jackson, 67, and Janet Rice, 65, glided across the big stage. With the six-foot-one Jackson dressed head-to-toe in a red suit and Rice decked out in high heels and a flouncy red dress, several “oohs and ahhs” were uttered in unison throughout the auditorium.
The couple – who are engaged to marry in late February – met at the Willow Woods Recreation Center in Woodlawn in 2015. The duo performed ballroom dancing, a specialty of Jackson, who has taught dancing to debutantes and others since 2000. Now, he teaches line dancing, Detroit ballroom dancing and “walking the floor” at the Brownsville, Central Park, Don Hawkins and East Pinson Valley Recreation Board centers.
As Earl Hilliard Jr. took the stage later, following the couple’s performance, his remarks seemed particularly appropriate.
“You know, sometimes opportunities for different things open up with God when you least expect it,” said Hilliard, deputy director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the city of Birmingham, who attended for the mayor’s office.
In Jackson’s case, a career change about 15 years ago set his life on a different track. After owning a lawn-care business for most of his life, he began having extremely high blood pressure. Jackson’s doctor told him it was time for a career change.
“That’s when I started dancing,” Jackson said.
Jackson met Rice in August 2015. It took him several months to really get to know Rice, one of 13 women in his line-dancing class at Woodlawn.
“I do not date my students,” Jackson said. “I also decided I wouldn’t talk to anyone unless they were 65.
“The way I got to know Janet was I had a party for students at my house,” he said. “Janet helped me with the party. I watched Janet and saw what kind of person she is.”
True love came, Jackson said, when they really got to know each other’s personalities, discovering that their goals and desires meshed.
Jackson, who had been seeking someone special for quite awhile, knew right away that Rice was different. Though she was two years shy of his “age requirement,” he decided to take the chance.
“I had prayed to God and asked for over a year and a half to send me the right person,” said Jackson, an Ensley resident. “I prayed, ‘Send me somebody who I can talk things over with. Not an ordinary Christian woman, but a real Christian woman. And I wanted honesty.”
For Rice, who retired from teaching and from the Birmingham Post Office, Jackson was a breath of fresh air. For example, he is an old-fashioned gentleman who believes in opening the car door for his woman.
“I also prayed,” said Rice, who now serves as Jackson’s assistant teacher. “You know, when you get older, it can be hard to find someone. I prayed for a man who would be Christ-like and love me. Aaron is very patient and forgiving.”
The couple’s children mesh together, as well. They all met at Thanksgiving, when Jackson’s three sons and Rice’s son and daughter were able to share the meal and talk.
Jackson said, “Two weeks ago, her baby son told me, ‘You don’t usually find everyone in a family likes each other, but we all do.’”
“We try to walk in love and happiness,” Rice said. “We’re supposed to be a light towards other people.”
Jackson and Rice said they want to marry while Alabama still requires a marriage license. They’ll marry later this month at Rice’s home in Roebuck, where her mother, 87, and her father, 91, will serve as witnesses. Birmingham Minister Jacqueline Lewis will officiate. The couple, who will live in Ensley Highlands, plan a wedding reception with their family and friends on May 18.