2 friends finally become sisters Matchmakers: Laura Heffernan and Leslie Benfer are family now, after setting up their single parents on a date that eventually led to marriage.

January 17, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

When Laura Heffernan and Leslie Benfer were in the sixth grade, they signed notes to each other "love you like a sister." Six years later, the Howard County 12th-graders are sisters.

Their parents -- Kevin Heffernan and Carole Benfer -- owe their recent marriage to the teen-agers' friendship and persistence at matchmaking.

Set up by their daughters on their first date, the Ellicott City couple then courted each other on the sly -- dating that led to a joint house purchase in July, their November marriage and the two teen-age girls' becoming stepsisters.

"We forced them to go out with each other on that first date," Leslie says. "I'm amazed it worked out."

Of course, this marriage could have taken place only with the girls' endorsement -- and that was granted only after the couple agreed to give the teen-agers a second phone line for their use.

This is a story that's something of a cross between the Walt Disney film "The Parent Trap" -- in which children bring together their divorced parents -- and the TV series "The Brady Bunch," in which two families are merged by marriage.

It began six years ago, when Leslie and Laura were sixth-graders at Harper's Choice Middle School in Columbia.

The girls quickly became close friends, even signing notes to each other "LYLAS" -- Love You Like A Sister. Two years later -- as eighth-graders attending different schools -- they decided to set up their divorced single parents.

Using her annual birthday trip to a dinner theater as an excuse, Leslie persuaded her mother to let her invite a friend and a friend's parent to "The Music Man."

"When she asked me, I thought it was going to be some friend of hers and her friend's mother," says Ms. Benfer, 48.

In the two weeks leading to that first date, both daughters pestered their parents to ensure that everything would be perfect.

"I got a lot of pressure from Leslie on how to dress and how to act," says Ms. Benfer, the independent-living coordinator of the Maryland chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

So Ms. Benfer called Mr. Heffernan before their first date, and the pair planned a ruse to tease their daughters. During dinner, Mr. Heffernan leaned over and commented on how pretty Ms. Benfer's dress looked.

"Leslie immediately stood up, announced she had to go to the bathroom and asked me to go with her," Ms. Benfer recalls. "As soon as we got in there, she said, 'See, Mom. I told you to wear that dress.' "

But after the first date, Laura and Leslie thought their efforts had fizzled. As far as they knew, their respective parents didn't seem interested in each other.

"A couple of weeks went by, and we kind of let it drop," Laura says. "Then we found out they'd been seeing each other behind our backs."

Laura's father doesn't remember it quite that way.

"We weren't trying to keep it a secret or anything. We just didn't want to advertise it and get the girls' hopes up," says Mr. Heffernan, 43, a systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. "But after our first few dates, it wasn't a secret.

"We would always run into at least one or two of their friends when we were out, and by the time I would get home from a date, Laura already would have received phone calls from friends," he says.

Over the next three years, Mr. Heffernan and Ms. Benfer dated regularly, never seriously considering marriage because each had pledged not to remarry.

They say they did little to influence their daughters' friendship. "We just let them be, because we thought that pushing them might drive them apart," Ms. Benfer says.

Meanwhile, Laura and Leslie -- who share the same middle name, Ann -- went on to earn 4.0 grade point averages at Howard County's Atholton and Centennial high schools, respectively. This fall, they were named two of the county's 16 National Merit Scholarship semifinalists.

"It's a pretty remarkable coincidence," Mr. Heffernan says.

Mr. Heffernan proposed to Ms. Benfer in February, timidly asking her if she wanted to discuss the "M-word." They purchased a new house in Ellicott City in July -- moving in with Laura, Leslie and Mr. Heffernan's 11-year-old daughter, Cara.

"I wasn't sure about buying the house, but Leslie really liked it," Mr. Heffernan says. "She finally told me, 'Look, I picked out your wife for you. Now I can pick out your house, too.' "

After Mr. Heffernan received an annulment for his earlier marriage, the couple organized their Nov. 4 wedding in just two weeks.

For the girls, their only demand was two phone lines. With the prospect of two teen-agers tying up their phone, Mr. Heffernan and Ms. Benfer quickly agreed. Now the biggest complaint comes from Cara, who says: "I hate answering the phone. It rings all the time, and it's for anybody but me."

Since moving in together, Laura and Leslie have continued to attend different high schools and lead separate lives -- working part-time jobs, attending school dances, participating in after-school activities. Laura also spends about three nights a week at her mother's Columbia home, "giving us some breathing space," she says.

"We still have mutual friends," Laura adds. "Every once in a while, we'll go out together. We see each other enough around here."

As they spent the fall looking at colleges for next year, neither girl expressed a strong desire to attend the same school -- largely because they have different academic interests.

"But as I've heard them talking about colleges, I've often heard them comparing how far different schools are from one another," Mr. Heffernan said. "It's nice to see they've become so close."

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