Dr. Ian Birkett and Maggie Li both worked in the medical field, in neighboring facilities, but it took friends from another town to bring them together.
Ian was a pathologist at then-St. Vincent Infirmary (now CHI St. Vincent Infirmary) in 2011. Maggie was a research assistant at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.
“We never saw each other,” says Maggie, “so our friends in Hot Springs did some matches.”
Maggie, who was born in China, spent 14 years in England before moving to Little Rock in 2001. She had been divorced for 10 years by then.
When her longtime family friend approached her about coordinating an introduction between her and Ian, though, Maggie said she wasn’t interested.
“She was Chinese. She said she needed to find a good person for him,” she says of the friend. “But I’m kind of picky. I came here as a single mother over a decade before that, and I did not try to remarry at that moment, even though I was still pretty young, because I had my two kids and I focused on them.”
Maggie’s friend was a friend of a couple of Ian’s longtime friends, and the three of them were united in their goal of getting Maggie and Ian together.
Ian isn’t sure what, specifically, made his friends decide Maggie was someone he should meet.
“They knew me,” he says. “Knew me well. I guess that’s why.”
He wasn’t as reluctant as Maggie was about being set up.
“I was willing,” he says.
Maggie’s son had started college by then, and her daughter was set to graduate from high school that year.
“I said, ‘Oh, I don’t need anybody,'” Maggie says. “But people said I needed that. My friend who tried to match me with him talked to me on the phone for more than an hour, saying now that your kids have grown up, you need somebody.”
Maggie was in China visiting her family for about three weeks when the match-making scheme was initiated.
“Our friends had actually tried to get us together three years earlier,” says Maggie, remembering that Ian had been involved in another relationship at that time, though she had likely been no more eager to meet him on that occasion than this one. “This time he decided to wait for me, until I got back from China. I’m glad he waited.”
Maggie was driving when Ian called to ask her for a date, and her daughter answered her phone. Maggie hadn’t mentioned ahead of time that she was going on a date, and her daughter was surprised to hear a man’s voice on the phone.
“She was kind of protective,” says Maggie, who called him back later.
They had a nice time talking over dinner at YaYa’s, but Maggie wasn’t sure what would happen afterward.
The next day, Ian sent flowers to her at work.
“I sent her red roses,” he says.
Maggie’s co-workers took note of this development, not having known her to have a love interest before that.
“Everybody was saying, ‘Oh, what’s going on?'” she says.
She called to thank him and he asked her out again.
“We started dating and we got to know each other,” she says.
They had dated for a while when she asked to define their relationship. Her relatives had mentioned that Americans sometimes dated more than one person at a time and she wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case here.
“I did not know about the American dating culture, so I asked him,” she says. He assured her that, from his perspective, they were exclusive. “I said, ‘OK, I like that. Me too.'”
There wasn’t a formal marriage proposal, she says.
“My husband, I don’t think he’s a romantic. We just talked about that,” Maggie says. “We decided to get married.”
They exchanged their vows on Feb. 18, 2013, in the Anthony Chapel at Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs.
“My daughter and my niece wore purple dresses,” says Maggie, who wore an elegant white gown.
They honeymooned in Key West, Fla. A couple of months later they went to China to visit Maggie’s parents, who had not yet met Ian, and he saw where she grew up.
Ian and Maggie have enjoyed traveling, taking trips including to San Diego, Boston and New Orleans, as well as abroad to England, Turkey and France.
Maggie fell on one of their trips and broke her femur, and their flight home from Paris was delayed for a few days while she had surgery.
“He was so nervous, he had to ask every doctor, just to make sure I am OK,” Maggie says.
They also like going to parties and social events.
“Now because of covid, in good weather, we do a lot of walking,” she says.
They also like to do crossword puzzles and play board games.
“We play Scrabble,” she says. “It’s fun to play. My vocabulary is kind of poor but I’m learning and I like to play that.”
Both are retired now, so they have more free time to do those things together.
“We’re lucky,” she says. “Just lucky that things have worked out very well. Lucky, very lucky.”
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The first time I saw my future spouse:
She says: “He looked dependable. He was a handsome person.”
He says: “I was excited to meet her.”
On our wedding day:
She says: “I wore my wedding dress from the beginning to the end. I didn’t change like some people do now.”
He says: “It’s all a blur, but the ceremony was beautiful in the church. It’s similar to the open-air wood and glass church by E. Fay Jones in Northwest Arkansas.”
My advice for a long happy marriage:
She says: “Trust each other. Also, I think, compromise. It can’t always be one way, both sides need to compromise.”
He says: “Work on it. And be accepting.”