There's one strict rule in the Smith household — no fewer than 12 hugs a day.
And Walter and Barbara are only too happy to adhere to this self-imposed dictum.
The couple, both 83, rarely leave their cheerful Newport Beach home without their hands linked. And it's been that way — right down to keeping their arms tightly wound around each other at church — since their first encounter eight years ago on dating website eHarmony.
"I was very active — I still am — but I had to come home to an empty house," said Barbara, whose husband succumbed to Alzheimer's disease in 2000. "I had to climb into an empty bed. And I didn't like that."
For Walter's part, the "wonderful woman" to whom he was married died of breast cancer in 2001.
Although they dated other people before meeting, the pair found that, for one reason or another, those relationships fizzled out. So in the spirit of moving on, they created eHarmony accounts at virtually the same time.
Barbara recalled being impressed by the organization's founder, Dr. Neil Clark Warren. As a clinical psychologist and Christian theologian, Warren expressed concern about the national divorce rate and wanted to provide a program that could lead to lasting and meaningful marriages.
Walter received 48 matches, which he winnowed down to five and then two — that is, until he came across Barbara, who shares a name with his first wife.
"At first, the thing that shocked me to no end was my deceased wife's name," he remarked. "I thought I was in a trance. I got up from the computer, went downstairs, outside and around the house. I walked up and down the street and finally went back and reread it. When I saw she was a retired policewoman, I thought, 'Whooo-ey!'"
Walter, a financial adviser, and Barbara began communicating via eHarmony's mandated questions, but soon that wasn't enough. Their first conversation lasted four hours and was followed quickly by a coffee date.
"Twenty-five years of police work had taught me to read people well, and I knew he was authentic," said Barbara, who cased the selected venue a day before their meeting and located emergency escape routes.
"He came across that room with that big smile and that hand outstretched and I thought, 'Wow, this is one big, damn good-looking man.'"
His simultaneous reaction: "That's my woman."
Keen to get to know each other further, Walter and Barbara picked for their next date Five Crowns Restaurant & Steakhouse, where Barbara devoured her favorite meal, salmon. Two days later, Walter arrived at her doorstep with a cooler full of frozen salmon that he'd caught in Alaska.
"A good fisherman chums, and I'm chumming for you," he told her.
Six days after their first meeting, Walter proposed and Barbara responded, "I'd be honored to be your bride."
eHarmony decided to celebrate the Smiths' union by naming them the Golden Years Couple and giving them a spot on a new float in the 125th Rose Parade in Pasadena on Wednesday. They will join six other couples, each a tribute to the dating service's broad-based compatibility, upon a 55-foot metal structure bedecked with flowers, where Natalie Cole will perform "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)."
"The [parade] theme ["Dreams Come True"] was perfect and is an exact match for what we continue to hear from our couples," said Jaime Rupert, eHarmony's director of corporate communications. "We want to highlight that there is someone for everyone. No matter where you are in life, no matter your situation, there is everlasting love out there for you, and we want to help you find it."
Rupert added that recent research has demonstrated that a third of married couples met their spouses online. It's an increasingly common way to connect, regardless of the participants' age.
"People would be surprised [by] how many seniors are using eHarmony," she said. "We have thousands of seniors on the site. They are encouraged by their children, grandchildren and friends, and it's a great way for them to have vibrant relationships, which are so critical at any stage of life."