By Arielle Dollinger and Priscila Korb
Irene Virag looks at the line of people waiting at Starbucks as her husband, Harvey Aronson, settles himself at a table.
“I already know what you want,” Irene says, smiling at Harvey, and he reciprocates the gesture.
“We love Starbucks,” Harvey says while Irene stands on the line, “and I drink decaf. With soy.”
Every time they travel, the two make an effort to find a Starbucks. The couple has even been to one in Paris and the original in Seattle, Harvey proudly reports.
“I’m the addict; he just drinks decaf,” Irene says when she gets back to the table.
Harvey, 82, and Irene, 56, have spent almost every day together since the day in 1982 when Irene went to work at Newsday, they say. Harvey was an editor and Irene a reporter who had just moved to Long Island from Texas. Harvey was 50 years old and Irene was 25.
“I was a skinny… punky kid,” said Irene, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who is now a bright-eyed, pink-cheeked woman with shoulder-length silver hair and a smile warm enough to melt a glacier.
Harvey had returned to Newsday just one month earlier after spending a twelve-year period freelancing and writing books.
He said he was immediately taken with Irene’s writing.
“The way she wrote touched me,” he said. “I think there are great similarities in the way we write.”
After working together as a reporter and editor for eight years, they began to date.
“We were both always with other people during the eight years of our working relationship,” Irene said.
But, suddenly, she said, they were both unattached.
“We went to see The Silence of the Lambs,” Irene said in an e-mail. “When we realized we were holding hands, we both started laughing.”
Harvey said he had always seen something in her—he thinks he had feelings for Irene for a while during their work relationship but chose not to acknowledge them.
He was impressed by her attention to detail, noting that she would come back from reporting and he would ask her for the color of the rug in the room she was in, to test her, just for fun.
“And she always knew,” he said, a look of awe and reflection in his eyes.
According to Richard Firstman, who currently teaches journalism at Stony Brook and was one of the writers Harvey mentored at Newsday, Harvey has a soft spot when it comes to a certain writing style.
“I think that Irene’s particular writing really must’ve been the first thing that won his heart because she’s such a wonderful writer and really does write from the heart,” Firstman said. “And I think that’s the way to Harvey’s heart.”
Firstman does not know when Harvey’s feelings about Irene began to grow, because Harvey took so well to being a mentor and treated all of the young writers with the same degree of sweetness.
“You couldn’t tell because he was that way with a lot of people,” Firstman said. “And then I guess at some point it just became something different for him.”
“They have just a really great love story—a very long-lasting one.
Harvey and Irene’s professional relationship ended as soon as they began to date, but he never stopped being her editor.
The twenty-five year age difference used to trouble Harvey, now reaching his 20th anniversary with Irene.
“I used to worry terribly that I was too old,” he said, “that I’d die and she would be left alone.”
But the couple does not worry about that anymore.
Two or three years after being married, Irene was diagnosed with breast cancer—a scare that made them see that health problems were not reserved for the elder member of the couple.
Almost two years ago, Harvey underwent a triple bypass open heart surgery.
“We keep relearning that lesson to sort of treasure every day,” Irene said.
One of Irene’s step-children, Harvey’s daughter, is a year older than Irene. According to Harvey, his daughter once said she sees Irene as a friend.
“None of them call me Mom,” she said with a smile. “Thank God. I’d giggle.”
But according to Irene, age does not matter in a relationship.
“It’s hard to be happy in this world, and so, if somebody makes you happy, it doesn’t matter what their age is.”
Neither expected the relationship to grow in the beginning.
“I just couldn’t believe I was going out with Irene, I thought, wow,” said Harvey.
Irene thought the same thing, she said, but it was a different kind of “wow.”
“Never say never,” she said, “because you really never know what’s next, what kind of weird twist fate is gonna take, and suddenly you’re married to your long-time editor.
In 2006, Howard Schneider, dean of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism, who worked with the couple at Newsday, asked the two to join the faculty as founding members.
“He came to our house and sweet-talked us,” Harvey said.
According to Irene, it was the couple’s idea to teach together. It was the first question they asked.
The dean approved, and they have now served as teachers and mentors to many students. They even stay in touch with numerous pupils—they like to follow their careers.
Carl Carrie, who graduated from SBU in 2009 with a degree in journalism, took two classes taught by Harvey and Irene during his time at the university. He, Harvey and Irene have kept in touch ever since.
Carrie now works in social media and marketing at St. Johns University, but keeps in touch with the couple and said they are “two of the kindest and most thoughtful people [he’s] ever met,” and the best storytellers he has ever known.
“When my uncle was battling cancer, [Irene] was always there for me,” Carrie said. “The two of them have that trait that they know when people just need someone to listen, or when they need some advice.”
Irene even called to keep Carrie updated after Harvey had his emergency heart surgery.
“She told me Harvey told her to ‘tell Carl we’ll make it to his engagement party,’ which was a month or two away,” Carrie said. “I spoke to him at length a week or two later, and in his classic sarcastic, but never condescending, tone, he told me, ‘I’m having a great day. I walked all the way to the mailbox! I’ll be at your engagement party even though you are too young to get married.’”
Harvey and Irene did make it to the engagement party—Harvey wearing his trademark cowboy hat.
“As much as [Harvey] makes fun of love, he is the most in-love person I’ve ever met,” Carrie said.
Carrie had only positive things to say about the pair; they taught him countless life lessons. He recalled a night when he needed help with a piece that he was submitting for award eligibility, and Harvey and Irene worked through it with him for an hour, starting at 9:45PM.
“If you want to know how great Harvey and Irene are, know this,” he said. “I’m sitting in my living room with a bunch of people watching the Superbowl, and yet, I’d rather talk about them.”
People often ask the two how Harvey and Irene can stand being around each other all day, but they agreed that being around each other all the time has never been a problem.
Irene remembers being puzzled at the fact that some couples at Newsday chose not to each lunch together—she and Harvey would eat lunch together every day.
“Once in class, someone asked me what was the greatest, I guess, story I ever covered or the greatest thing I’d ever done, and there are stories that stuck out, but I said ‘marrying Irene,’” Harvey reminisced.
He sarcastically acknowledged that he does have other options.
“If I wanted to make a fortune, I could go to Florida and exploit elderly women,” he said. “I mean, I have my hair, I don’t have any false teeth, I know how to dance.”
But he already has his two loves: Irene and writing, which they agreed brought them together.
“I take such pride in her work,” Harvey said.
“We’re each other’s sounding boards for writing,” Irene added.
They edit each other and are both what she called “active writers.”
Throughout their relationship, they have discovered that they have read many of the same writers.
“We’ve melded our libraries,” Harvey said.
Harvey smiles with recognition as Irene begins telling a story. They finish each other’s thoughts and Harvey whispers into Irene’s ear. Irene looks at Harvey like he is the most precious and intriguing specimen in the world; and she takes care of him. They have inside jokes and share looks that are telling to one another but mysterious to anybody else. They are the embodiment of the clichés of romantic comedies and Nicholas Sparks novels.
“I think we’re partners in the truest sense of the word,” Irene said.
Irene’s bag holds all that she needs to take care of both herself and Harvey, including matching granola bars and a worn brown case labeled, “Harvey: Reading glasses.”
But there is one significant difference between the characters of movies and books and Harvey and Irene—Harvey and Irene are real.