MICHIGAN CITY — A trip to the YMCA is not usually considered a romantic getaway.
Yet the swimming pool at the La Porte County YMCA’s Elston Branch proved the perfect place for small ripples of friendship to grow into waves of love for Michigan City residents Benny and Gail Graves.
On Friday, Sept. 27, they celebrated their marriage with a reception at the YMCA, which was filled with not only family and friends, but swim class pals and staff members.
The two had been talking during their YMCA Senior Stretch class for about 18 months when Benny, now 67, thought he’d like to ask Gail, now 66, out on a date. Waiting for the opportunity at the next class, he was disappointed she was absent. And because of health reasons, it was six long months before she’d return.
“As soon as she came back, I asked her out,” Benny said.
Her reply? “Let’s just be pool buddies.”
“I didn’t want to take the risk of us not being friends,” Gail said.
“She had been single for many years and didn’t have any idea she’d be falling in love,” Benny said while smiling lovingly at his wife.
For the next few weeks, Gail carefully pondered that decision.
“About a month passed and I thought about it a bit more seriously – and I observed him a little closer. I decided to ask him if he wanted to go out to dinner,” Gail said. “I was 65 years old and I thought, ‘What would be the harm in going out with this pool buddy?’”
“And I said, ‘Yes – today?’ and she said, ‘No – tomorrow,” Benny recalled.
Their first date was in October 2018 at Lighthouse Restaurant in Michigan City. That led to another date, and another – and in January 2019 they became engaged.
“We were dating, but the rest of our classmates didn’t know it until we announced we were engaged and they were pleasantly surprised,” Gail said.
Now, their friends in the YMCA pool class jokingly tease them when they hold hands or Benny kisses Gail on the cheek.
“The Y has been a ‘home’ to so many and this story of Benny and Gail is proof of that. They have touched the hearts of so many people from members to staff,” said program director Kathy Workman. “I can say that Benny is a true gentleman as he always carries Gail’s bags and pulls the car up to the door for her.
“The way he looks at her with so much love and admiration shows us that true love is not a thing of the past. We love Benny and Gail just like members of our family, and they always bring such a positive spirit with them everyday. We are honored to have their love story start right here at our pool.”
The Graves’ first wedding date was set for early March, but they agreed to postpone it until March 29 because Gail wanted to make sure the timing was right.
“I knew that I didn’t want to live without Benny after all,” Gail said, after she and her future husband had carefully considered the impending marriage.
She said what attracted her to Benny was “there was no guesswork. He just revealed who he was right away. There was no pretense. He was genuine. He was fun-loving. He reminds me of myself.”
As for Benny? “She’s a sweetheart and she’s beautiful,” he said. “We have a lot in common. We love the same food. We love nature and being outside. We both love exercising.”
They both began taking classes at the YMCA about two years ago. In addition to the Senior Stretch class, they’ve also enjoyed the Aquatics Tabata Class. Gail has taken the Stretch and Tone class as well, and Benny works out with weights.
“We both love going to the YMCA and feel bad when we miss it,” said Benny, who first started attending as he recovered from ankle surgery.
“When you come out there’s not pain whatsoever. It’s like you’re on a cloud,” added Gail.
Since their marriage, they also enjoy worshipping together at Full Gospel Church in Michigan City.
Gail was born in Chicago and raised most of her life in Gary. She moved to Michigan City in 1977. She retired from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now Indiana Dunes National Park) as a park ranger affer two decades.
Benny has been a Michigan City resident since 1961. He was born in Piggott, Arkansas, and later lived in Westville. He was employed as a truck driver for Brown Bulk Transport until he became disabled after falling off a roof while building his home.
“Everyone has been happy for us and our relationship,” said Gail, who has a son, a daughter, four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Benny’s family includes a son, a daughter and two grandchildren.
Ironically, Benny’s son, Bobby Graves, and Gail’s daughter, Angela Flekenstein, knew each other at Michigan City High School.
The reception at the YMCA – a total of 126 RSVPs were received – included a light dinner, and “music that will span generations and be diverse,” Gail said. Guests danced in the famous Red Devil gym.
The couple look forward to their future and ticking off entries on their “bucket lists” – taking a cruise together and finding a way to float down the Mississippi among them. Falling in love at the YMCA pool, however, is one item they can cross off.