While at a party in New York City, Steve Koenig got a nudge from his boss. If you hit on that woman, the boss told him, pointing to a pretty blonde, you can come in late tomorrow.
Koenig, who at the time worked chartering private planes, obliged — and so he met KarenLee Poter, a Chicago woman who was in New York for a night on the town while visiting her daughter at Yale University. She and Koenig hit it off and continued to chat by phone after Poter returned home to Northbrook, developing a friendship that, with a few trips between New York and Chicago, became a more serious romance.
The distance proved difficult. But neither of them was much bothered by another detail that might give others pause: Poter is 16 years older than Koenig.
Now dating for 41/2 years, Poter, 54, and Koenig, 38, say how old they are matters far less than how young they feel.
"She's very unique and young spirited," said Koenig, who moved to Chicago in April to be closer to Poter. "If she's not going to two concerts a week, she's upset."
The couple don't talk about marriage. They take it day by day and relish each other's spontaneity. During a visit to Florida, for example, they were walking through South Beach after dinner and noticed a long line at a club where R&B artist Daniel Merriweather was set to perform late. Poter and Koenig decided, on a whim, to attend, and didn't get back to their hotel until 4:30 a.m. despite an early morning golf date.
"I feel like I'm in my late 20s or early 30s," said Poter, who said her three children, from a 23-year marriage to her college sweetheart, always knew her to be the kind of mom to stay up until 3 a.m. hanging out with their friends.
Poter re-entered the dating pool under tragic circumstances. On May 16, 2006, her husband, Gary Poter, was stabbed to death at his Chicago office by a disgruntled employee angry about a demotion and pay cut.
"Time froze," Poter says of the moment a hospital chaplain informed her that her husband, with whom she'd had "a great marriage," had died. Distraught, Poter said she "didn't have the luxury of falling apart," and that evening gathered her kids together and vowed to remain strong.
The family's finances, which she had always left to her husband, were now hers to untangle. The construction company where her husband was president was now hers to helm (it has since dissolved).
The challenges made her stronger, more grounded and independent, Poter said. After a year of mourning, Poter decided to date again.
"I looked at it as opening a next chapter," said Poter, who has launched a company, LoveEncore (love-encore.com), in which she hosts interviews with experts on topics related to dating "the second time around." "I found it to be inspiring, invigorating, exciting."
Poter is drawn to Koenig, whom she met in February 2008, because "he's very upbeat, extroverted, loving, marches to the beat of his own drum." But she has found younger men in general to be appealing. Poter calls herself a "proud, card-carrying" cougar, a term she associates with being a strong, confident woman.
"One thing that's wonderful about dating someone younger is that they're more open-minded and idealistic," Poter said. "A lot of the men my age were married and divorced and are hostile and bitter toward women."
Their families were at first skeptical of the age difference, and some people have lobbed nasty jokes. But Poter said many of her female peers applaud her choice. Some men her age seem intimidated or insecure.
Poter's son Jeremy, who was 14 when Koenig entered the picture, said he was "a little surprised at first," jarred by the idea of any new man in his mother's life as well as this particular man's age. But he and Koenig have since become good friends.
"They make each other happy, and I'm happy she's happy," said Jeremy, now 18 and a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The pairing requires some generational compromises. At parties, for example, sometimes "she wants me to hang out with the older crowd, and I want to hang out with the younger crowd," Koenig said. But Koenig said that he likes that Poter is "cooler" than many of the younger women he has dated, "not as needy, more laid back."
"The only thing that held me back was if I wanted to have kids," said Koenig, who has since decided he doesn't. Poter made it clear early in the relationship that she was done bearing her own and the next children in her life would be grandchildren (her other children are Jessica, 26, and Cameron, 23).
A far greater obstacle than their age was their geography. When they first started dating, Koenig's work granted him discounted airfare, so he would fly from New York to Chicago every two to four weeks. But two years into the relationship, Koenig decided to go to the University of Maryland to finish his bachelor's degree. The frequency of their visits dwindled to every six to eight weeks, and they would argue about how to make the visits happen.
"It was a long-distance, poverty-stricken relationship," Poter said.
Poter, anxious about the relationship, started seeing a counselor. When she asked Koenig to join her, to discuss communication issues, he agreed; the counselor was the impetus for his move to Chicago.
"We've always been willing to work on our issues together, we've worked really hard on the relationship and trying to listen to each other," Poter said.
Koenig was also a crucial support for Poter during the trial of her husband's killer, Tom Tuduj, which dragged on for three years. Poter said she could rely on Koenig to step out of whatever he was doing if she needed to call him when she was overwhelmed by the testimony or fears that the defense's argument that Tuduj was "involuntarily intoxicated" on prescription pills would hold up (it didn't, and he was sentenced to 45 years in prison).
Poter acknowledges that it can be difficult to date a widow, as the shadow of the beloved spouse can loom large. She appreciates that Koenig doesn't get jealous.
"He understands my husband was an integral part of my life since I was 19," Poter said. "He's open to hearing about it, and I would feel really constrained if I couldn't talk about it."
"When I first began dating, I tried to find someone who would fit in the life I had," KarenLee Poter said. "But I think you should look for someone who just makes you happy." Said Steve Koenig, her boyfriend 16 years her junior: "Don't be afraid of anything that's different or out of the norm."