Julia Herrmann was single, living in the South Loop, and increasingly frustrated with her romantic life. After yet another failed relationship, she was ready to give up hope when her uncle, who is one year older than she is ("It's a big Catholic family," she explained) told her that he met his girlfriend online.
This was 2007. Julia, a dance teacher, had never ventured into cyberdating but decided to give it a shot.
"I really did want to try and find a decent relationship," recalled Julia, now 32. "So I was hopeful that I might finally find a person to do that with." So she joined eHarmony.
Among the thousands of Chicago-area members was Dan Foster, who also happened to live four blocks away. He had been on eHarmony for eight months and enjoyed meeting women on the site.
"You can get a basic understanding about who a person is," said Dan, also 32, "and what they are about before meeting them just randomly on your own."
Julia, however, didn't see it this way — maybe because she couldn't figure out how to use it. She answered all the questionnaires to help the site find her prospective dates, and when she finally completed them … just five matches popped up.
"I was like, 'How in the world, with all the people in Chicago, do I only have five matches?' " Julia asked.
Impatient and annoyed (and not realizing more matches would eventually show up), she considered the candidates she got. Yes, Dan was among them. And she decided he seemed the most normal.
So Julia messaged him. "I'm new to the site, and I only have five matches," she recalled writing. "I'm wondering if something's wrong with the site. Can you tell me how to fix it?"
Dan had received many emails via eHarmony in the past, but never one asking him to help a woman meet other guys.
"But I'm always one to take advantage of the situation," he said cheerfully, adding that he checked out her photos and thought she looked like a fun person since she had three different hair colors in her four pictures. "I wanted to come to the rescue and help her work the website."
And so their correspondence began.
"I said that since she only had five messages, then she was so unique and special that she only had five people match to her in the whole city," he said.
Julia, still feeling bad about the five hits, was not amused. Then Dan asked her out on a date (good!), but canceled (bad!), saying he had to go to the suburbs with his father to return a car.
Julia didn't believe him, and she was both right — and wrong. Dan really was helping his father return a car, but that's not why he canceled; he wanted to take Julia out in style but couldn't afford it.
Instead he settled for daily phone calls and emails to help her find prospective matches online. A friendship developed. Unbeknownst to Dan, Julia had lost interest in the site after connecting with him.
"I looked at some profiles but still didn't understand it and didn't want to deal with it," Julia said, "so I just kind of assumed that I would meet Dan, and if it flopped, I'd start all over again."
She didn't think it would flop. Julia was attracted to Dan's closeness to his family and friends. Dan, for his part, loved that Julia was so loyal to everyone close to her.
After six weeks, Dan took Julia to Opera, the now-closed restaurant in the South Loop. After dinner, they went back to Julia's deck to watch the summer fireworks. After that, they were inseparable. "We literally went out every single day after that for three weeks straight," she said. "It went really fast."
They had been dating for five months when Dan proposed. The first time.
"It was a joking situation," Julia explained, "and he said to me, 'Let's get married.' I said, 'No, you're crazy.' I wasn't sure if he was serious."
Turns out he was. Dan tried again a week later. "I said, 'I don't have a ring yet, but will you marry me?' "
Julia wanted to marry him, though she admitted that she was disappointed there wasn't a ring. Still, she said yes.
So she waited for an engagement ring.
Two weeks before their marriage in a small civil ceremony, Julia still didn't have a ring. They were at a Lincolnshire pumpkin patch celebrating the fall colors, and at one point Julia was oblivious to everything except the excellent bratwurst and the mustard on her face.
She ran into the bathroom to wash the mustard off, and when she came out, Dan wasn't there. Instead, a little boy came up to her and held up a sparkly spider ring and said, 'Hey, lady, will you marry me?'
"I thought, 'This isn't funny,' " Julia said. "I wanted a ring, and I was wondering why this little kid was torturing me."
The boy moved aside and there was Dan, kneeling in the middle of the pumpkin patch with a real ring.
The next year, Julia gave birth to Jack. In 2010, Max arrived, and in 2012, they welcomed baby Emma. Julia now shares her role as mom with teaching dance. The couple still live in Chicago, close to McCormick Place, and life for the Fosters hasn't veered too far from its comedic beginnings, said Dan, who still works in sales: "(The online introduction) set the tone for everything after that."
Plus, he joked, a couple really needs a sense of humor if they plan to have three children within five years of meeting.
"Our lives remind us of a reality TV show," Julia said. "I swear, some of the goofiest things happen to us — just the two of us. And when you add our kids in, it's a nuthouse all the time."
"The thing that's (helped us) survive our marriage has been humor. Even if one of the kids does something bad, we'll turn the whole situation around. We're able to laugh at ourselves. You have to, or you won't make it."
— Julia Foster