The Peachtree Christian Church in Atlanta is one of those rare places where the congregation is serenaded by the choir from a balcony above, so the songs take on an ethereal quality, something Barry Burt loved about it when he joined in September 2001. A month later, he was standing on a step following Sunday service, his choir robe still on, when he heard a voice. It came from the right, though, not the ceiling, and it belonged to —
“I had to think for a moment,” said Burt, who hadn’t thought of the woman now speaking his name in almost a year. “And then I realized it — ‘Uhh … Sharon!'”
They talked for a few minutes, nothing more, and then parted ways. He wasn’t interested in spending any more time with Sharon Johnson, certainly not the way he had been the previous October in Chapel Hill, when, as co-leader of the Atlanta Carolina Club, he met Sharon, then the Lake Norman club leader, on a bus heading into campus for the annual Club Leaders Conference. He thought she was cute and followed her around the rest of the weekend “like a dog in heat that never went away.” When he discovered that Johnson was an Atlanta native with family still in the area, he immediately suggested that they go out while she was in town for the Thanksgiving holidays.
They went to an Atlanta Symphony Pops Concert.
“To say we didn’t have a good time is a vast understatement,” said Burt.
“Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” said Johnson.
“We shook hands goodbye and that was it,” said Burt. “She just didn’t have much to say all night. I found out later she was just nervous, but we didn’t talk for almost a year.”
Not until their meeting at Peachtree, where, unbeknownst to Burt, Johnson’s sister was a member and her brother-in-law, a fellow choir member. Three months later, Burt logged into his email and saw a message waiting from Sharon. She had two tickets to see Carolina in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Would he like to go with her?
“I just started combing through my small Rolodex,” said Johnson. “I don’t know why I thought about Barry. I was so barely conversational the last time we had gone out. I guess I thought I should call him and make up for it.”
“I interpreted it as, ‘I need a warm body to fill the other seat,'” said Burt. “But I knew it wasn’t a date.”
They began the day at 11 a.m., painted Tar Heel tattoos on 200 little faces, rode the streets of Atlanta in a UNC parade float — actually, a heated trolley — and had a romantic dinner at Chick-Fil-A during the FanFest pre-game. Typical first-non-date stuff for a Carolina Club leader. Burt took Johnson’s hand as they wended their way to their seats at the Georgia Dome. And after they’d made it through the crowd, she didn’t pull it away.
“There was a little bit of chemistry thing there that wasn’t before. People would take pictures of us, we’d lean in — and not lean back out.”
Johnson knew that, later that night, “he’s going to want a kiss, I bet.” This was, after all, New Year’s Eve, and sure enough, when midnight rolled around and everyone was waiting back at the team hotel for the Tar Heels to make a victorious appearance, they finally smooched.
“It was very short, but something very special,” said Burt, “it really was.”
And so with other Carolina fans, they celebrated — champagne spilling out of the always-elegant stadium cups — not just a football game, but a new year. A new kind of year.
By the Super Bowl, Barry and Sharon were a done deal. “I remember we were watching it with my parents at their home in Atlanta,” said Johnson. “We were sitting on the sofa. He traced the words out on my leg: I love you.”
They became engaged on Valentine’s Day, and on September 29, at Peachtree Christian Church, with the choir in its balcony and a Tar Heel-shaped groom’s cake waiting in the wings, what seemed impossible only a year ago was now reality. Atlanta had stolen Lake Norman’s club leader, for good.
By the way: There was nothing particularly significant about September 29 — at least, not in the romantic sense, said Sharon Johnson Burt.
“It was sort of planned around getting to Phoenix for the Arizona State game.”