Fire department sets love aflame for Swat alums

CakeOn a Thursday night in early September of 1994, Charles Mayer ’98 and Rachel Henighan ’97 met each other for the first time during a meeting at the Swarthmore Fire Department. Little did either of them realize that they had met their future spouse. Charlie had just started his freshman year at Swarthmore and had chosen the school because of his desire to join the fire department. Rachel finally decided to join her sophomore year.

“I don’t remember anything about that night,” said Rachel,  “I remember Darian Unger ’96 (our current neighbor) being our mentor. I have no specific recollection of meeting Charlie on that night.”

“Well, I have a specific memory of meeting you,” Charlie replies. He remembers this night quite vividly; he remembers seeing Rachel for the first time and recalls this as the start of their friendship.

Either way, this night was the start of something for this Quaker Matchbox couple. As a freshman, Charlie came into Swarthmore open to all its opportunities, not only the academic but also the possibility of the romantic. Charlie was willing to find a relationship but wasn’t certain that anything would actually work out for him. “I was sure that most women thought I was too annoying to be husband material.”

“He was definitely too annoying to be husband material,” says Rachel,  “That’s why we didn’t start dating until after we both graduated.” Despite Rachel’s initial reaction to Charlie, the two formed a close bond. During their time at Swarthmore they made memories, created traditions, cultivated close friendships and laughed their way through the stressful college experience together.

“Almost exactly 20 years ago, Rachel, Doug Berger ’98, and I played in a leaf pile on the lawn outside of Willets,” recalls Charlie, “We were silly, happy, and totally unaware of everything that we would see and do over the next twenty years.”

Rachel fondly remembers one of their longstanding traditions that the two started together during their time at Swarthmore. “Twenty years ago this fall we started a tradition of making pies once a year, more or less, with all of our Swarthmore friends,” says Rachel. “We still do this, though sometimes we end up skipping a year if we can’t get our collective act together. Note that Charlie has never made a pie; however, he does serve an important logistical function.”


Their mutual interest in joining the fire department was essential to their budding relationship. During their first year of training, they were able to really get to spend time together and get to know each other as individuals. The two were able to learn and grow together outside of the classroom in an environment that supported teamwork and close friendship.

“In the fall of 1994, Rachel and I spent a lot of time in fire school. Some of our best practical training was done in the industrial badlands, down by the PECO power plant in Eddystone,” recalls Charlie. “We hooked up fire hoses, practiced with the power tools, set things on fire and got comfortable with all the lingo and procedures. At the end of one long Saturday of training we packed up the gear and hopped in the hose bed to ride back to the fire station. I felt like I was in a movie. There we were, on Engine 14-2. Tom Cochrane of Swarthmore Facilities was driving. Rachel and I were in the hose bed with our fellow probationary firefighters. The power plant smokestacks belched carbon emissions in the background. We felt like real firefighters, even if we were far from qualified.”

Several years after they both of the graduated, Rachel and Charlie decided to get married in 2003. A few years later in 2007, they had their first daughter, and two years later in 2009, their second daughter arrived. Now a family, Charlie and Rachel have moved beyond their Swarthmore years, but they still find that the college experience plays a role in their lives. Many of their closest friends and memories came from Swarthmore.

Now, almost exactly 20 years after their first meeting, the two of them sit together recalling these memories, and feel a sense of gratitude for having found each other at Swarthmore. Both agree that there is something about the fact that they were both Swarthmore students that made them more likely to fall for each other.

“Our shared Swarthmore experience makes us more compatible,” Rachel explains. “The Quaker aspect, the socially conscious background, the commitment to live that life for four years gives us something in common.”

“Swarthmore has a reputation for being selective, but the kids who apply to Swarthmore are also a self-selected group,” says Charlie. “We are a nice combination of quirky, shy, smart, and just weird. I think that so many marriages start at Swarthmore because we are all so happy — or relieved — to find each other. We are also bonded by the intensity of our shared Swarthmore experience. Relationships forged in this environment seem to stand the test of time.”

“I should add that we both work with a lot of people in their early twenties who are actively on the dating scene,” says Rachel. “This makes us grateful to have found each other at Swarthmore, because each of us would be especially bad on the dating scene.”

“I loved my time at Swarthmore and am especially grateful for every opportunity to be connected with the College,” adds Charlie. “Swarthmore is a great institution … and an especially great place to find your future spouse.”

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