It is the day before Valentine’s Day, and snow lightly tumbles to the ground across campus. Students rush to purchase flowers everywhere, and Flex points have purchased pounds upon pounds of candy in preparation for the following day. The night before Valentine’s Day, though, one of Notre Dame’s most well-known couples sits behind two of the card-swiping machines in South Dining Hall.
Meet Lila and John Ritschard—the dinnertime card-swiping, happy-birthday-singing joke-making duo of Notre Dame. While many students recognize them by sight, the story of how they met and wound up at Notre Dame is a bit less obvious.
When asked about how they met, John replied emphatically, “That’s a long story.”
Lila giggled in response, recalling details about the exact day they met. Lila worked at a beauty shop, and John was looking for a deal on a haircut—little did he know that he would get a wife along with it.
“You know, it was like the weather today. We had a bad snowstorm in January. I can remember the day, it was January 13, 1999,” she smiled. “I went in to cancel my appointments, and he came stumbling in in the snowstorm with a coupon for a free haircut. That’s how we met.”
Did he receive what he wanted? John said yes: “I got my free haircut!”
“But it ended up being the most costly one he’s ever had, because he got me,” Lila corrected her husband. “I was known as the coupon bride.”
Lila and John were both previously married, but widowed before they met each other. The couple has now been married for 15 years. When asked about how they came to be together, Lila had a simple response: “It was just God’s will.”
Their two families seem to have joined together. John and Lila both had children of their own, and now have a large family.
“Between the two of us, we have 19 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren, and we just got our first great-great grandchild,” they explained.
The look on my face must have spoken to how impressed I was, because John quickly chirped, “Yeah, we’re old!”
Of these many children and grandchildren, Lila and John have their own connections to Notre Dame—a grandson-in-law currently studies biochemistry, and one grandson graduated last year. Beyond their own family, Lila and John definitely feel the strength of the family life here at Notre Dame as well. They rightly see themselves as a big part of it.
“Working here has changed my mind about the university in a lot of ways,” Lila noted. “I have so much respect for it. The students here are our future. I worry, though, when they come through and say I’ve stayed up to this hour or that hour for this test. I say, don’t do that to yourself. You know the material, you took the notes, you went to class. You’re not going to fail. You may not get a 100 percent, but you’re not gonna not pass.”
John begins the playful banter that many know to be typical of the dining hall couple.
“Yeah, she’s the mom type. I’m dad. We’re mom and dad to a lot of kids. We try to interact, I joke with them.”
“I love it when it’s their birthdays,” Lila added.
“I had five of ‘em tonight with birthdays and I give ‘em a candy bar and Lila sings to them.”
“Oh I scream. I mean, I sing like a bucket of bolts,” Lila said.
John continued, “We get all the students behind waiting in line involved in it to sing to them. They’re not home with Mom and Dad, we’re Mom and Dad, we give them a gift. A little candy bar.”
While John and Lila love to joke with the students, they do have some serious advice for the people they see every day at the dining hall.
“The one thing I would tell every student is I know it’s easy to get down and think you’re failing. That’s a human trait. Through faith, all you have to do is remember one thing: God does not make a mistake, so you’re not a mistake. Number two: stay close to Him and He’s not going to let you down,” Lila shared.
When I asked John, he had the same sentiment.
“Similar. We agree on everything.”
Lila wanted students to know that she keeps them in her mind: “We pray for the kids everyday that whoever comes through our doorway we ask God to just watch over them, guide them, hold them, lead them, teach them and speak to their hearts.”
The couple knows that the care in their relationships with students is not one way.
John and Lila talked about John’s time in the hospital last year. It was a very rough period for them, but one of the most important things that came out of it was the blessing the student body was in supporting them. For that, they are very grateful.
Leaving the dining hall on that night before Valentine’s day, I had learned two very important lessons. One, you never know where love will find you, or when. Second, you never know where a free haircut will take you.
Maggie Duncan is a freshman in McGlinn. If you have a coupon for a free haircut she could use before the snow ruins her hair, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.