Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 35, Number 2

High-Class Reunion

How Susan Sgarlat and Charles Fels reconnected after 30 years

When Susan Sgarlat read this short announcement in the Spring 2003 Vanderbilt Lawyer, she hadn't seen her former classmate, Charles Fels, since he slipped into a classroom where she was taking a final exam to leave a polite goodbye note.

"We had both been editors on the Law Review," Sgarlat recalls. "The editor-in-chief, Andy Kaufman, had a goodbye party for me, and Charles hadn't been able to come. So he wrote a nice note saying he was sorry he'd missed the party, and that it had been nice to know me."

That was in December 1973. "We weren't all that close," says Sgarlat. "We were just fond of each other and sat together in classes. After law school, I think it's fair to say that neither one of us thought about the other for 30 years."

Since that time, Fels had married, had two grown children, divorced and, ultimately, returned to the Episcopal Church after 40 years. Sgarlat, also divorced with two grown children, had returned to the church during her first pregnancy. She had long cherished a secret ambition to attend seminary and become a hospital chaplain.

Sgarlat, an attorney in the general counsel's office at Columbia University who volunteered with hospice patients, was struck by the news that Fels had left his legal practice to study for the ministry. "I'd been wanting to go to seminary myself for years and hadn't done anything about it," she says. "And here was a classmate who had done it. Of course, I rushed to the internet and found the Washington Post article about Charles."

The article, which focused on people who left high-powered careers to attend seminary, began and ended with Fels' story. He had served as a federal and state prosecutor before joining a nationally known criminal defense firm in Knoxville. Sought after for his expertise in criminal defense, he had spoken before groups of lawyers in 19 states and two foreign countries. His last years in practice took him around the globe to the Alaskan Arctic Circle for an environmental case; to San Jose, Costa Rica, in a narcotics case; and to Amman, Jordan, in an international money laundering case. After concluding the successful defense of a major environmental case, his European client flew him to Brussels and Paris for celebrations before returning him home on the Concorde. He left his practice at 59 to study for the ministry full-time.

Sgarlat wrote him a note. "We started a correspondence by email," she says. "It began about our different faith journeys. I had seen him for the last time in 1973."

When Sgarlat's email arrived, Fels remembered her immediately. "She was smart, fun and good-looking—a hard combination to beat," he says.

"How wonderful to hear from you," he wrote in response. "...I am here [at seminary] because I felt called to be faithful. It's no harder, and no easier, than that. ...So tell me about your own road and where it has taken you."

Their email correspondence soon expanded to telephone conversations. Two and a half months later, the couple met again for the first time in Knoxville, where Fels was starting a summer internship at a local Episcopal church. "Nervous?" Sgarlat recalls. "I certainly was!"

That fall, after Fels returned to seminary, the two began seeing each other every weekend. The following summer he interned as a chaplain in New York. After Sgarlat was accepted at Union Theological Seminary—which she describes as "crawling with lawyers"—he went with her to slip her deposit under the door. He proposed in November 2004, during their 30th law school class reunion in Nash- ville. The couple set a date in May 2005.

A month before the wedding, Sgarlat logged onto the New York Times web site to fill out a wedding announcement form, only to discover the paper required wedding information at least six weeks in advance. "I thought, 'Well, they might print it,' and I filled out the form," Sgarlat says. "At the end of the form, they asked how you met, and I wrote a couple of paragraphs." Her answer piqued the interest of columnist Kate Zernike, who called Sgarlat the Monday before the wedding to ask if the Times could feature their wedding in the paper's Sunday "Vows" section.

"The coverage by the Times was totally unexpected," Fels says. "They sent a reporter and a photographer from New York to Washington to cover the event. The wedding reception was self-catered—Susan did most of the cooking and all of the organizing. Friends decorated the church hall for us the morning of the wedding, and at the last minute, I found five seminary students who served the champagne. That's probably not the way most weddings featured in the Times get catered."

"We had a huge wedding," Sgarlat says, "but we sent email invitations, and we didn't make a fancy deal of it."

Zernike wasn't the only reporter who attended the wedding, held at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Washington, where Fels had served as a seminarian. Fels also invited Fredrick Kunkle, the Washington Post writer whose article about Fels' career change had been mentioned in the Lawyer, and he was first in line to congratulate the couple at the reception. "This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'impact journalism,'" he quipped.

The couple credits the Lawyer and the Washington Post with enabling them to reestablish their friendship. "One day, Charles started to talk about how unlikely our whole meeting was, that the law school alumni magazine had picked up on the fact that Charles was in divinity school by seeing that article in the Post," Sgarlat says. "Our courtship came as a complete surprise to both of us. Here we are in the late stage of our lives, turning everything upside down and starting again."

In the weeks after the Times article appeared, the couple received letters of congratulation from all over the United States. "One of the first was from Chancellor Gordon Gee, who saw the story while reading the Sunday Times over breakfast," Fels recalls.

Sgarlat, whose undergraduate degree is from Barnard, will finish her coursework at Union this spring. She continues to work full-time at Columbia University. She will do clinical pastoral work this summer and plans to be ordained by the Reformed Church of America.

Fels, who earned his undergraduate degree from Stanford and holds a Master's in history from Vanderbilt in addition to his J.D., is now a priest at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Manhattan. The couple is living on the Upper West Side while Sgarlat completes her studies. "At some point we will start looking for a community that would welcome two recovering Vanderbilt lawyers, one an Episcopal priest and the other a hospital chaplain," Fels says.