Not everyone who lives in our nation’s capital is caught up in the doings on Capitol Hill or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s one of the things that attracted Paula Watson 35 years ago to the man who would become her husband.
Adding to the allure, it took just one glance to cause Rick Irwin to make a U-turn on his bicycle to pursue Watson as she, too, cycled among Washington’s historic monuments on Memorial Day in 1978.
Then, Watson worked in the White House in an office that overlooked the Jacqueline Kennedy garden. The DeKalb County native majored in political science at Emory University and went to Washington in 1976 for an internship with the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign. She was an assistant analyst for the U.S. Senate budget committee, gaining exposure to the legislative process, before working in the White House as a research assistant for then-first lady Rosalyn Carter.
Irwin, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Westchester University in Pennsylvania. He was working as an actuary for a life insurance agency on Capitol Hill in 1978.
While riding around the Jefferson Memorial, “I caught a glimpse of Paula. Something just shouted out at me,” Irwin said. When he turned around to follow her, he noticed she was with another fellow. When they stopped at the monument, so did Irwin.
Ironically, the man cycling alongside Watson was a stranger to her. When the three stopped riding, Watson walked away, so Irwin struck up a conversation with the man.
Irwin had made an impression on Watson even though she left the two men to their discussion. “I saw this cute, tall guy,” she said. She doubled back, the stranger left, and she and Irwin started talking.
Their conversation continued over dinner. Thankfully for Watson, politics wasn’t discussed.
“I had quit dating because guys always wanted to talk about my career,” she said. “Rick was interested in talking to me about me.”
Added Irwin, “She was looking for a breath of fresh air.” He fit the bill. “I was an actuarial student hitting the books. I wasn’t interested in politics at all,” he said.
They discovered a common interest in cultural activities, such as symphony concerts and the theater. Ironically, one of Watson’s White House job perks was access to the presidential boxes at Washington theaters when VIPs weren’t attending performances.
Six months after they met, Watson and Irwin were engaged. They married on May 27, 1979, at Peachtree Baptist Church.
By 1980, Watson said, she was “exhausted working long hours at the White House.” They settled in northeast Atlanta, started a family, moved to Flowery Branch, Ga., for six years, then settled into the Branches in Dunwoody in 1990. Irwin remained an actuary and is retiring this month; Watson is also retiring this month from her teaching position at the Westminster Schools.
Through the years, Watson and Irwin have enjoyed singing in their church choir and being a part of the Dunwoody community. They have traveled to most of the United States and many foreign countries with their children, Laurien Avery and Jonathan, both now grown.
Avery, who lives in Dallas, Ga., recalls those road trips. She said her parents were “always looking for teachable moments.”
She said lessons she learned from her parents have helped her as a wife and mother.
“Mom and Dad put communication as a high priority,” Avery said. “They would take time to talk things out, set side time to communicate more than just on a surface level.”
She said her parents nurtured in her and her brother a sense of independence and freedom to choose their own paths.
“I count myself very lucky that my parents set a great example for me to hold up as a standard,” Avery added.