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Love birds, peony fields and chocolate hearts: two professors’ marriage story

Jill and Dave Russell's relationship spans from classes in Oxford to peony fields in Alaska.
Jill and Dave Russell's relationship spans from classes in Oxford to peony fields in Alaska.

When Jill Russell was a graduate student at Miami University, she was on a search for high blood pressure participants for her study. Fate — or maybe Cupid — had other plans.

The graduate student of a faculty member with uselessly low blood pressure gave her a name, Dave Russell, and told her how to find him. There, in Dave’s first-floor research lab, she found a participant for her study. A tall, high-blood-pressured, willing participant and her future husband. 

His participation, though, did not last long.

“Sometimes I'd take his blood pressure and he would be borderline high, high, and other times I'd take [his] blood pressure and it would be low and normal,” Jill said. “It was so labile that I had to throw him out."

Dave claims this was Jill’s fault.

“In large part, it was due to what she was wearing that day, and some days it impacted my blood pressure more than others,” said Dave, as he ate a chocolate heart taken from Jill’s bowl of candy. “It was her fault that it was screwed up.”

From that study on, they were blissfully stuck together. Their offices as beloved Miami professors currently sit just above one another in Pearson Hall. Jill’s bowl of heart chocolates never quite safe.

Love Birds

It took two tries for fate to pair the two academics. The second was an act of sabotage.

“One day, another grad student came into the lab and said, ‘Hey, how would you like to be in a Birding Competition?’ And I'm like, ‘I'm doing brain surgery and you want me to go look at birds?’” Jill recalled.

She maintained her rejection of the invitation until the grad student showed up again, this time with a pair of binoculars and Dave.

They went birding — their first time of many to come.

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Dave identified bird species from what Jill saw only as moving specks in the sky. He listened to their calls, proving his accuracy to the then-doubtful Jill.

“I'm like, ‘OK, this guy's a big blow-hard.’ I mean, he's just obviously too big for his own pants. Right? Mr. Know-It-All. But every time I challenged him — arrogant, yes, he was very arrogant — he'd pull out the field guide and he was right,” Jill said.

“There's a metaphor for life there by the way,” Dave said; that he is always right.

“Oh, bullshit,” Jill said.

Dave’s accuracy, however, had put a target on his back in the department. The previous year, Dave, who studied bugs, and his partner, who studied spiders, had beaten the grad students who actually studied birds.

“So they're like, ‘OK, we want Dave Russell to go out in flames,’” Jill said. “‘Let's find the worst person we can possibly find to be his birding partner,’ but I didn't know that.”

They had succeeded in convincing Jill to be Dave’s birding partner, hoping she would be enough to hold him back.

“We won. We won the competition,” Jill said.

“And we won every year after that for at least 10 years,” Dave added.

“Just friends”

After a time of being close friends, Dave getting his Ph.D., and his previous wife leaving the picture, Dave asked Jill to date him. Jill was reluctant at first.

Jill asked Dave to wait for six months before dating. A buffer, a time when they were to remain friends to make sure they made the right move.

“I don't want to be a rebound. Right? I mean, you're my friend. I was afraid that if it didn't work out, I would lose my really good friend,” Jill said.

“And she’d had no ability to figure out what birds were at that point,” Dave said.

Fate’s final blow was their unproclaimed first date — Jill’s alumni dinner at Mount Saint Joseph College. A dinner that Jill claims she invited him to as friends.

“She said that in her head,” Dave said of that claim.

“I said it out loud and there were witnesses,” Jill said.

While mingling at the party, Dave made his move.

“He turns around and he lays a big wet kiss on me in front of everybody, and I was mortified,” Jill said. “Well, first I kind of liked it. But I was mortified.”

There was no going back. Her friends at the party had seen the kiss and were convinced of their relationship. The timing of Dave’s kiss had been strategic.

“I’m like, ‘You little fucker, you set me up,’” Jill said. 

“I take advantage of situations when necessary,” Dave said.

That became their first date, although Jill was reluctant to call it that, set on standing her ground for the six-month period.

“We [still] had to go the other three months,” Jill said. “Then, when the day came that I had set as our time limit, we actually had our first official date and, when we were on our first official date, he was planning our honeymoon.”

Birds and those who love them

When they got married in 2002, the pair wasn’t allowed to elope. Friends in the biology department at Miami who claimed to have known their fate all along had refused to let them get married without witnessing it.

They shared their vows in a church packed with 300 to 400 delighted, loving witnesses.

“It was a great wedding,” Jill said of the night.

“She says it was a great wedding, but ask her about any detail.”

“I was in total shock. I hardly remember anything from the wedding. I’d been single for 12 years, a single mom. So this was a huge lifestyle change bringing a big alpha male into my family with my two kids [and] his three kids,” Jill said.

“And the worst part was that he was a birder,” Dave joked about himself.

They merged families. The success of which can be measured best, maybe, by them describing every one of their five kids as “ours.”

Jill and Dave’s honeymoon spot was no sunny, warm coastline: they took a trip to Alaska. For the love of birds.

“Every bird I saw was a life bird for me. I'd never seen it before in my life. It was so cool,” Jill said. “I think that's what cemented birding for me. I just absolutely loved it. And we always said we'd go back when we were empty nesters.”

Peony Fields 

Then came an email from the University of Alaska Fairbanks looking for two professors to teach introductory biology courses and anatomy and physiology for nursing majors — the exact classes they taught at the time.

“They were looking for what we teach, but I was too busy, so [I deleted it],” Dave said. “It was out of my head.”

They discussed it that evening and how they were far too busy with the bird banding station and classes. Dave had been planning a summer class about biodiversity in Arizona and was about to submit the final paperwork. He couldn’t go to Alaska for an entire summer.

“She had mentioned it a second time … when I had shut her down. I thought: before I hit submit on all of this paperwork I've done, I wonder why she mentioned it twice,” Dave said.

So he called her just to make sure.

“She goes ‘Oh, I'm glad you asked.’ And she goes, ‘I applied!’”

“I did. I applied for both of us,” Jill said, laughing.

They both got the job. Dave agreed to go for one summer, a move that turned into 10 summers teaching and working with birds in Alaska.

Photo by Contributed by the Russells | The Miami Student
The Russells are the largest commercial flower farmers in Alaska.

Then came the peonies.

“We bought 40 acres, and we are now one of the largest commercial flower farmers in Alaska,” Dave said.

A colleague had been researching possible sources of profit for Alaskans, apart from the plummeting oil industry. The Russells, after a year of researching the industry, agreed to purchase a five-acre plot and plant peony fields.

“We planted thousands of roots,” Dave said, “and I ultimately became president of the Alaskan Peony Growers Society and we went from a handful of Peony farms to two or three hundred that are up there now.”

“And it's the biggest industry behind [salmon] as an export [in Alaska],” Jill said. “And you know what? [He’s] still smoking hot.”

“Her eyesight is getting much worse.”

Life birds and their chocolate hearts

Dave and Jill have spent more than 20 years together, yet Jill only recently memorized their anniversary.

“I do know we were married in ‘02 so it'll be 21 in May, pretty amazing,” Jill said.

“April,” Dave corrected.

Photo by Ryann Beaschler | The Miami Student
Jill and Dave spent their Valentine's day with their students, their love for birds, Peony fields and chocolate hearts.

They had no Valentine's plans. It’s just like any other day as married Miami professors. With their packed schedule of classes, their students, their love for birds and each other, their Peony fields and the rest of the chocolate hearts — if there are any left — in Jill’s bowl.

“Every decision we make … we consider the other person immediately like it's just second nature,” Jill said. “It’s part of my decision: is this something that is good for Dave too? Would Dave be happy with this or not? It's because he and I are one.”

“But it's not something that comes easily, it's not something that comes naturally. And it is …”

“ is beautiful when you get to it.”

“We don't have to work as hard now as we did before. You know, matter of fact, it's …”

“...easy, it’s comfortable.”