Taft and Shaneil Ealy grew up together, both attending high school in Conway.
Shaneil said she was in 12th grade, Taft was in 10th, when the two met through mutual friends.
At that time, though, neither had even an inkling of feelings for the other.
The two hung out in the same social circles then and carried that friendship into college, both often trying to hook the other up with each other’s friends as well, Taft at one point, attending a formal with Shaneil’s sorority sister in Fayetteville.
“So, I knew he was a good guy, just not for me,” she said.
The same was to be said for Taft too. No feelings.
After she graduated, Shaneil moved and began working with Hallmark writing cards.
“Through then, we just still had mutual friends and he’d come and hang out when I’d come home on the weekends, that kind of thing,” she said.
Again, up to this point, neither had contemplated thought about asking the other out on a date.
“We were just really good friends,” Shaneil said. “I would say he was like one of my best guy friends at that point.”
While Shaneil was still on the same page she’d always been on, Taft was the one wanting to start the next chapter.
Taft said he recalled the moment it changed for him. He said he was visiting Shaneil during a holiday weekend and brought four wheelers for the two to go riding.
“Well, I knew she wasn’t crazy,” he said, the two laughing, recalling the girl he had dated before her. “I knew it couldn’t be any worse than what I was coming from. It was one of those things, ‘she’s a good girl,’ so we're going to try it.’”
Shaneil said her friend made a joke about the two dating and then an aunt. When she told Taft, it was his reaction that surprised her the most.
“He was like, ‘yeah, I could see us dating.’” she said. “I dropped the phone. That was kind of the pivotal … that’s when I knew he was kind of thinking it was more than what I was thinking. I was in shock.”
The two then decided to try it but made a pact that if it got weird, they’d just drop it, both fearful of losing the friendship they had spent years building but that first date turned out fine, as normal as ever, the two just hanging out, Taft ending the night with a kiss to Shaneil’s forehead.
“It just felt natural, nothing was forced,” she said.
Shaneil moved back to Conway and the two officially started dating. Neither could remember who said I love you first.
“I believe the love was already there because we were buddies [so] that part came genuine,” he said.
For Shaneil, it was different because normally a girl “lusts” after a guy first but they already had that solid friendship foundation.
“I remember thinking our relationship was so different than any that I had ever been in before,” she said. “I was like, ‘maybe this is the real deal and this is what it’s supposed to feel like.’”
Taft proposed to Shaneil after an elaborate scavenger hunt in September 2003 and the Ealys were married on Feb. 14, 2004.
“I always wanted to get married on Valentine’s Day and she likes snow, and someone said, ‘what if it snows on your wedding day,’ and it did,’” Taft said.
Due to the weather though, the ceremony ended early and the two, absolutely broke, Shaneil said, headed to Little Rock for their honeymoon, getting stuck on the road somewhere on I-430, forced to get out and push in his tux and her wedding gown until a group of compassionate truckers volunteered their assistance.
“It was memorable,” she asd.
That first year of marriage was a tough one from the get-go.
The couple was building a house and ended up moving in with his parents for five months until it was finished, during that time, trying to fall into the role of husband and wife.
They made it through though, their main goal that first five years being not to get pregnant, Shaneil and Taft wanting her to finish her degree before babies.
Then she got pregnant with now, 10-year-old Henderson.
“I was bawling,” she said. “I wasn’t ready for that. That was a really stressful time for me trying to figure out how I was … I had a demanding career and classes and then how was I going to fit this baby in. That was one of the pivotal points for me.”
At the same time, Taft was helping someone start their business, working his own job, that actually, ended up moving out of state, forcing Taft to take his severance package.
He said he remembers waking up one morning after two months of drawing unemployment, with Shaneil ready, a stack of applications in hand. That’s when he told her he was thinknig about starting his own business.
“I was like, ‘right now,’ she said, talking new house and new baby. “I just couldn’t believe it. He had to tell me about my faith. He was like, ‘you talk about faith, I’m about to show you faith.’”
Shaneil had grown up in church but Taft was in and out.
“So for him to say that, I was like, OK, you know,” she said. “I think it flipped then. I could talk it, but he was like about to walk it, which is totally different, so I had to really commit to myself. It was hard, he was like, ‘just don’t doubt me,’”
Years later, with an additional child, 5-year-old Jase, Taft owns two businesses.
Through the years, the two have pushed each other’s buttons, learned what motivates and encourages the other, what drives the other crazy — he hates it when she hangs stuff on the door and Shaneil can’t stand when Taft sits his empty cans on the counter when the trash is right there — and how to be a united front, something even their son, Henderson, sees.
“It’s good,” he said, referring to his mom and dad’s marriage. “A good bond. They work together.”
A big high for Taft was becoming a dad.
“Put it like this,” he said, smiling. “Henderson was born on the opening day of deer season. That was the first time I missed [opening day] in all my life and I was in the hospital and I didn’t think about hunting. So, it was pretty cool.”
While the early stages of marriage may have been rough like everyone else’s — Shaneil remembers keeping a prayer journal, asking God to make her husband a leader, a protector, an encourager for her — both have seen the fruit of that labor, Taft noting the importance of communication as the biggest thing he’s learned.
“Now I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’ I couldn’t have asked for … my prayers are totally answered,” Shaneil said. “He is there, involved and committed.”
Shaneil said it all comes down to prayer and grace for one another, learning how to compromise, talk stuff out, work together and make those needed adjustments, rather than letting things fester and turn to resentment and bitterness toward the other.
“She’s a note writer,” Taft said. “She knows when to write that note. She can make your lunch and she can put that note in it because she knows you’re working and dealing with something … you’re going to read it and it’s just going to make your heart mushy. She’s that type of girl. She knows when to encourage you.”
For her, it’s Taft’s heart that Shaneil has grown to love the most.
“He is a giver,” she said. “He’s tough on the outside [but] he’s such a giver. He gives his heart away so he’s teaching me how to be an automatic giver.”
The two even balance each other out, Shaneil said, with laughter filling those moments of unease and strife.
Taft and Shaneil Ealy will celebrate 15 years of marriage on Thursday.