COLUMBIA — When they started their programs at MU, Adrienne May and Bradley Smith never thought they would stay in Columbia. Then, they fell in love with the town — and each other.
“I got to Columbia and just loved it. I mean, I couldn’t think of any place else I wanted to be,” said Smith, 33, a loan processor at VA Mortgage Center.
He came to town in 2003 to study political science at MU, with two daughters, 5 and 1, in tow. He thought he would complete his bachelor's degree and go somewhere else for graduate school. But then he found a welcoming community and no reason to leave.
A year and a half ago, he met May, 26, who had just moved from St. Louis to attend a graduate program in higher education administration at MU. She came with her 1-1/2-year-old boy.
The couple are among the many people who found more in Columbia than they initially expected. They came for school and were charmed by the colleges, downtown, community, career opportunities, pace of living or Shakespeare’s Pizza. They found the magic in the town. And gave it their own.
Although Smith and May were working four blocks away from each other, both in MU Health Care system, and were parking their cars in the same parking garage, they met online. They started talking about being single parents and continued their conversations on Facebook, Twitter, through emails and in person.
“We hit it off ever since,” May said.
She and Smith now live together in a house in the southern part of the city. Their children grow up together, with Noah, May’s son, craving attention from the girls.
For the grownups, the town brings career opportunities and a vibrant community “that is not afraid to push and change,” Smith said.
“When I was doing job searches and finding so many awesome young companies and great opportunities here, I felt like I can stay here,” May said. “I don’t have to go anywhere because there’s so much more here than you would think.”
Wally Pfeffer also found that to be true.
“My mother always told me that 'Peter Pan' was on television the first time the night before I was born. And so I’ve always felt like Peter Pan, because Peter Pan never wants to grow up,” said Pfeffer, 56, an insurance agent.
In Columbia, he said, you don’t have to ever grow up because the 33,000 students in town are the same age year after year.
Pfeffer didn’t plan to stay here either when he came to college in 1973. He thought he would graduate, move back to St. Louis and go to law school. But then there was French.
He was pursuing a bachelor of arts degree, which had a foreign language requirement. Because he didn’t pass French, he couldn’t get his degree. He got a job at Mutual of Omaha in the fall of 1978 and stayed.
“I decided I’m not going to leave Columbia until I finish my degree, until I get married and until I pay all my bills,” he said.
Pfeffer accomplished his first two objectives over the next 11 years. He doesn’t have any hopes of getting out of debt until his 17-year-old daughter gets out of college. But that is not what has kept him in Columbia.
“I felt like I had an opportunity to get to know people better — there was a little slower pace than St. Louis,” he said. Other draws for Pfeffer were the good energy of the people, the vibrant downtown and the mix of small and big businesses.
Todd McCubbin, executive director of the Mizzou Alumni Association, said there are about 19,000 MU graduates living in Boone County. The university has about 230,000 graduates living around the world.
Richard Germinder left Columbia for two years after he graduated before coming back.
“It’s a good-sized town,” said Germinder, 28, a staffer in the Missouri Senate. “It’s got everything: stores, restaurants, night life. But it still feels like a smaller place. You know it has 100,000 people, but it feels much more intimate than that.”
Germinder moved in 2005 after he graduated from MU's political science program. He worked on a campaign in Kansas City and then went to Washington, where he worked in Congress.
“I appreciated my time in D.C., but what I really wanted was to live in Missouri,” he said. “There’s a saying that a place can be a house, never a home. Columbia always felt like home.”
Germinder moved back to Columbia in 2007. That year, he had a big plan for celebrating Homecoming, together with his then-girlfriend from college, Julianne O'Bannon. They had dinner at CC’s City Broiler and then went to see the house decorations in Greek town.
“I was, like, why are we walking? It’s cold,” she recalled. “And then he stops in the quad and proposes.”
They got married a year later and have lived in Columbia ever since. They are such big Tiger fans that they scheduled their wedding around the football schedule. And they wouldn’t miss this year’s game against Iowa State, which they plan to attend with 17 friends who will be visiting and staying at their home over the weekend.
“For some friends, (Homecoming) is the opportunity to come back to Columbia," Germinder said. “They come back not only for football but also for everything else. They want the town to do well; they want the school to do well.”
A note to readers:
Are you one of those people who came to Columbia for school and never left? Please share your story in the comments section below.
Here are some thoughts about Columbia from the people featured in this article, reasons they stay in the community. Maybe you have your own list? Please feel free to add them to the comments section, too.
We look forward to your responses.
Elizabeth Brixey, city editor, Columbia Missourian
- “There’s a great deal of diversity in Columbia. I value that, and I want my children to be able to appreciate that.” — Bradley Smith
- “The neighborhoods feel safe, you feel like you know people in the city, but at the same time it’s not so small that you don’t have opportunities.” — Adrienne May
- “Really talented people can make it their own. They don’t have to go and work at the big, huge companies that are established in St. Louis and Kansas City, but in Columbia they can truly like make their own type of way.” — Adrienne May
- “There are more families and young professionals, and it’s just a tier of people that make a good community.” — Adrienne May
- “The school and the town are the one and the same.” — Richard Germinder
- “You just enjoy the pace of life and the cost of living. And then you go to Shakespeare’s, Harpo’s and all those places that are unique to CoMo.” — Richard Germinder
- “I like the energy that we have here and kind of the progressive attitude. If someone has an idea and they can explain it to people to where it makes sense, most people in town are willing to give it a try.” — Wally Pfeffer