Few people on campus know they are a couple. And that’s how Ben Juliano and Renee Renner prefer it.
Ever since arriving at Chico State in 1998, both as faculty members in the Department of Computer Science, they have been careful to keep their identities independent of one another.
They maintained clear professional boundaries, sitting at opposite ends of conference tables during staff meetings and always referring to the other as “Dr. Renner” and “Dr. J.”
Even today, few students are aware of their relationship, though some have taken classes with both professors and visited their offices, where there are pictures of each other on their desks.
Renee laughed as she recalled one student standing up in class several years ago and saying in shock, “You never told me you and Dr. J are married!”
Their love story began as graduate students at Florida State University (FSU) in the early 90s, but it was slow to start. On their first introduction, Ben hardly gave Renee the time of day, as he was so entranced with new state-of-the-art technology in the graduate computer lab. Their next encounter was when he confronted her in frustration, after learning she had been telling his students to solve his programming problems a different way.
A few months later, a conversation with some classmates gave Renee new perspective. She started to pay more attention when he walked past her office.
“One day I just got brave, and I proceed to boldly ask him if he would like to go work out with me some day,” she said.
They started playing racquetball three times a week but their interactions remained platonic. Then, one day while chatting on the Internet (a novelty in the early days pre-World Wide Web), Ben asked Renee on a date.
That was in January, and “we were inseparable by summer,” she said.
Five years later, they were married and found their way to Chico State.
For many years, their career trajectories followed a consistent path and they shared the same research specialty, artificial intelligence, albeit with different focuses. They even had the opportunity to team-teach a class for a few semesters, thanks to a prestigious National Science Foundation grant they were awarded to start a robotics lab.
“That was the pinnacle of the things we have done in our career here together, as colleagues and as a couple,” Renee said.
In 2012, she left the computer science department for an opportunity to direct Gateway Science Museum. By the time she returned to teaching last fall, Ben had moved on to a dual role assisting campus with WASC accreditation and the Office of Institutional Research.
While they don’t have to try as hard now to maintain their professional separation, Renee said what she loves most about Ben is how he has always supported her.
“Whatever I decide to do or path I choose to take, he is always right there,” she said. “He is my rock.”
She also loves his simple displays of affection, such as making her a latte every morning, opening the car door, and waiting to eat until after she gets her first bite.
Likewise, he loves the little notes she used to leave for him and the sweet texts she sends him today.
“It’s about every day, you need them to know what they mean to you,” Ben said, noting that Renee’s strength and independence continue to be what he loves most about her.
The discipline they they’ve demonstrated in maintaining professional boundaries is perhaps only equaled by their dedication to committing fully to one another when away from campus.
“We go home to be home, and we leave work at work,” she said.
Living without Internet or cable TV, their free time is spent reading, talking, and doting on their dog and family (Three of their four children and their spouses are Chico State alumni!). They also enjoy snowboarding and wakeboarding, perhaps a reflection of those active dates they enjoyed so much in their early days.
Both said their children and grandchildren are a constant reminder of what they value most in life. And the independence they insisted on for so many years has begun to fade.
“We’ve gotten better at being a couple,” Renee said. “It seems like every year our love and support just gets better. If I could just melt into this man and we could become one, I would.”
“You Just Know”
It was messy. And it was difficult.
But it was incredibly worth it.
Daran and Dan Goodsell first met in 2000 while working together on the Chico World Music Festival; she as staff at University Public Engagement (UPE), where she has worked since 1996, and he as an independent contractor.
In the early 2000s, as Chico Performances began booking more shows and Daran’s job expanded, they needed to bring on a production person part-time. She wrote the job description and chaired the committee, which ultimately hired Dan. Then it was her job to train him.
“I’m a slow learner,” Dan said with a laugh. “I’m still being trained.”
As they spent time together, they grew close and found a deeper connection. Their courtship was not uncomplicated, however. Both were married to other people when Dan was hired and both had children of their own.
“It took a long time to be willing to upset the apple cart and be together,” Daran said.
They survived the challenges within their own families, as well as the drama, gossip, and negative energy from outsiders. But it was all worth it.
“I feel like I’m a more whole person with her than I ever was before,” he said.
When they decided to marry, they eloped to Canada. Dan’s third marriage and Daran’s second, they agreed this union was about themselves. Naturally, they picked an arts town and attended a play at a local community theatre the night before their wedding.
This year, as they celebrate their 13th wedding anniversary, Dan says Daran captivated him from the day they met.
“I saw the way she identifies a problem and organizes things, how effective she is at communicating, and how intelligent she is—and how beautiful,” he said, as she gave him a nudge. “And subtle.”
“The more I spent time around her, I wanted to keep spending time around her.”
Daran appreciates his integrity and honesty, as well as his great sense of humor.
While they knew early on their work lives would be less complicated if one of them left their jobs at UPE, they loved their roles too much. And today, neither can imagine working on campus without the other. Their connection is so close and their collaboration so extensive, they have agreed when it’s time to retire, they will do so together.
Daran, now the Chico Performances marketing coordinator, says it’s her job as to fill each venue with an audience, and Dan’s job as production coordinator is to ensure the show’s talent is as happy as can be when the performers get on stage.
Their work and home lives are intertwined. They talk about the shows that are booked, finesse details, problem-solve, and attend the events together.
“We eat, live, and breathe what we do,” Daran said, noting that when they took a three-week vacation over winter break, it took a week before they stopped talking about work.
They are each other’s sounding boards, literally.
“We must talk 10 times an hour,” she said.
With their offices just 10 feet apart in Sierra Hall, the twosome often holler back and forth, and there’s a clear path worn in the carpet between his desk and hers. They also eat lunch together every day, with Dan cooking and bringing lunch to Daran’s desk so she can keep working while they eat.
They admit they complement one another. She is expressive and reactive while he is patient and level-headed. They live three miles from campus and carpool together unless Daran rides her bike or Dan has a late-night show. When she teaches, he carries her books to her class for her.
So how do they know that this marriage is the one?
“Try and walk away from it. It’s the biggest test,” Daran said. “This is it for me. You just know. … It finally came down to we just can’t live without each other.”
Partners in life and in the ballroom
Chris and Jessie Mendoza were bound to have a perfect first dance at their wedding.
They first met on the sprung wooden floor of Yolo 213, where all Chico State ballroom dance classes are held. Chris’ introduction came when, as a student employee for Facilities Management and Services, he moved the then-dance instructor to her new office and was subsequently recruited to enroll in a beginner’s class.
He enjoyed it so much that he started showing up to every class, including the intermediate course in which Jessie was enrolled. She remembers him well, as one of the rare men on the dance floor, and they were partnered several times.
Chris was encouraged to become a teacher’s assistant, and they started hanging out more within their circles of dance friends.
“If you dance well together, the other stuff just happens,” Jessie said.
After both graduated in 2005, they kept dancing. She took every free workshop she could, and he was helping out at dances. After four years of friendship, he took the first step and offered to cook her dinner. Thinking it would be a group dinner, she brought salad and was shocked to show up and see that it was just the two of them, romantic music playing, and he’d set a platter of appetizers out.
“It hit me—it was a date,” she said.
It was the start of many surprises Chris would shower her with through the years—including their proposal in 2011. She thought they were going to a museum exhibit on video games but instead, he kept strolling to the roof of the Roth Planetarium, where he had been told it echoed. He had paid a student to hide on the second floor of the library to record it, recruited the then-University photographer to take photos of them like paparazzi, and had borrowed a campus sound system to help pop the question.
“It was Chico State, through and through,” Jessie said.
When they married in 2014, they had their wedding photos taken on campus, including shots in Yolo 213. And now, as staff members, their campus connection is even stronger.
“I still tell people it’s the best job in town,” she said. “It’s like being part of a not-so-secret, not-so-small club.”
His student employee days behind him, Chris has now worked on campus for over a decade, starting out in 2006 in the property management department. He moved on to work as a mail clerk and then a shipping clerk, and is now the mail services supervisor.
Jessie was hired in 2013 in the Office of the Provost. Later that year she moved on to the Department of Geography and Planning, where she is an administrative support coordinator. Her insider has always been Chris. He knows where everyone on campus is, a big help for those new-hire questions. Working on campus also gave her a greater understanding of his job and, in turn, she gave him a peek into a side of campus he had not seen before.
“We do pool our resources together,” he said. “’I know a lot about this’ and ‘You know a lot about that.’”
They jokingly refer to themselves Team Mendoza. Occasionally they have lunch together at Chris’ favorite bench, and they talk about their day on their commute home from campus. When their schedules were staggered, Jessie would come to work early so they could still drive together, and he would stay late waiting for her to finish.
They still live in the studio apartment they first moved into together.
“If I can’t make it work in 500 square feet, then it’s not going to work” Chris said.
“People joke if you can dance together, you can live together,” Jessie added. “It’s so true, because of how you make a good partnership happen out on the floor. He has to lead and initiate but he also has to listen, and it’s the same for the follower. It’s a balance.”
Dancing, naturally, is still a big part of their relationship.
Officers of the Capital Swing Dance Board in Sacramento, for a while they were also one of the most notable dance couples in Chico. They attend dance conventions and competition from time to time. Of all the arguments they have ever had, they laugh to admit the biggest ones are always about dance fundamentals.
While Jessie tends to be the slightly more adventurous one, Chris has always been a planner. The change in his course when he met Jessie took him by surprise.
“You were never part of my plan. And I’m so happy for that unexpected change,” he said. “I’ve found someone who exceeds everything I have ever experienced before.”