Tracking Down Cheryl
Despite frequenting the University of Florida, U.S., campus since 1994—first as a student, then as an employee—Alisson Clark had never noticed the inscription in the concrete in a well-trodden section of the Gainesville campus.
“Cheryl, if love could be like trees, you would be a forest.” The inscription was signed only ’77, presumably a reference to the year.
“I was walking back to my office from lunch one day and I happened to look down,” said Clark, a writer in the university’s research communications department. “I talked to a lot of people, and they had never noticed it.”
Clark paired up with colleague Emily Cardinali, who has since left UF, to try to track down Cheryl and the mysterious suitor—we’ll call him ’77. Knowing their search would involve a lot of phone calls, Clark said, they decided a podcast would be the best format to tell the story of their search for Cheryl.
“We knew it would make a good audio story, and the serial mystery element seemed fun. All we had was a first name and a year, and we didn’t know for sure that Cheryl was a student.”
But first, research: They began in the library, where they immediately hit a snag. No yearbooks had been published between the years of 1973 and 1984.
They tried old student directories, which Clark said was “a ridiculous way to start.” There were tens of thousands of students registered in 1977, and “we only knew the first name, so we had to scan every single entry since they are alphabetized by last name. What a chore!”
Clark and Cardinali then turned to their colleagues in the alumni office, tracking down every alumna named Cheryl who had matriculated at the time. “There were more Cheryls than we thought there would be,” Clark said. “So many Cheryls.”
Indeed, between the years of 1955 and 1959 (the time when a traditionally aged 18- to 22-year-old college student in 1977 might have been born), Cheryl was among the top 20 most popular names in the United States, according to the Social Security Administration.
The other complicating factor, Clark said, was that many of the women had changed their names when they married. “We were networking with Cheryls who might know other Cheryls,” she said. They spoke with Cheryl Schumacher, class of ’77, who thought she might be the Cheryl in question. But her mystery suitor had since died, so there was no way to confirm her suspicion.
“People were a lot more open to talking to us than you’d expect, getting a call from a rando who wanted to talk about a love note from the ’70s,” Clark said. “We got to talk with people who had so much history with the university. It was heartwarming to talk to people who spent their formative years at UF.”
The project went on to win a 2021 silver CASE Circle of Excellence Award for podcasts. But ultimately, said Clark, they never definitively found the Cheryl. They talked to one Cheryl who said she thought it might be about her, and who alluded to a possible candidate for ’77. They got an email from an alumnus who said he thought he knew who Cheryl might have been, but the name, Clark said, didn’t align with anyone who might have graduated in 1977.
“There were a surprising [number] of people who said, ‘It might have been me.’” But even without a clear answer, she said, a broader truth came to light: “If I hadn’t gone out of my office and looked around, we never would have learned about this. People who had no knowledge of this random love story from the 1970s got very invested. Sometimes, in the cycle of higher ed, it feels like you’re covering the same events year after year. But if you stay in tune to what’s around you, there are incredible stories that are fresh and new and waiting to be told.”
About the author(s)
Holly Leber Simmons is a writer and editor based in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.
Article appears in:
Diversity and inclusion, engagement, leadership: Inside the challenges and opportunities for senior diversity leaders in higher education; integrating alumni relations and development; and resetting in-person, online, and hybrid events.