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First, a rehearsal marriage 

But like Barbie and Ken, this couple is for keeps.

click to enlarge Tommye and Robert Watts in the Barbie room image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Tommye and Robert Watts in the Barbie room.

If it hadn't been for their divorce, Tommye and Robert Watts agree, their marriage would not have worked. And the Barbie Room might never have been built.

Robert Watts saw his future wife for the first time in 1986, at a filling station in Jacksonville. She was with a woman he knew.

"She got out of this big, jacked-up Ford pickup with a chrome roll bar. She bailed out of there wearing a yellow shirt down to here [he gestured to his solar plexus] and tight jeans. She was beautiful. I said, 'That's my kind of girl.' "

He wasn't her kind of boy, at first, and she wasn't looking for a man anyway.

Soon after that first meeting, however, she was at home with her friend when the friend told her, "I've got a surprise," and Tommye heard a knock on the door. She opened it "and there's this little short guy. I told him to go home and change into some cowboy boots to make him look taller." Then off to the Hollywood Country Club for dancing, where Tommye spent as little time with Robert as possible.

But Robert kept coming around, "like a stray cat," he said. She'd go out on dates and find him at her house watching television when she returned. "He kept hoping he'd get something," Tommye said, provoking a look of consternation on Robert's face. He was only 21 at the time, after all.

"Three months after we met we started liking one another," Tommye said. In 1987, they got married.

In 1988, they got divorced. Tommye, a tech sergeant in the Air Force, had temporary duty assignments that took her as far as South Korea. Robert "acted single still," Tommye said. So she divorced him.

"I was the exact opposite of what he expected," Tommye said. She was seven years his senior. "I owned my own house and my life was already planned." And, she conceded, they both "partied too hard" the first time around.

But Robert asked her out on dates after they split. "I'd say OK and stand him up," Tommye said.

Robert may be short — 5'4" — but he's tenacious. Eventually, because they didn't want to invite their friends' commentary, Robert and Tommye started to date surreptitiously. "He'd park in back and jump over the fence and come in through the back door," Tommye said. And in 1990, they remarried. They tried for Valentine's Day, but both had to work, so they settled for Feb. 15. No big white dress this time, just a short ceremony at a friend's house, and a Chrysler LeBaron convertible for Tommye as a wedding present. The couple considers their first marriage a rehearsal and don't include it in the 24 years they've been wed.

In this marriage, Tommye has shown patience and Robert has shown tender caring.

Patience because Robert — a builder — laid a foundation for their house in 2000 and didn't start building it until 2004. It still wasn't done in 2007. It was a variation of the cobbler's shoe fairy tale.

Caring because Tommye suffered a severe back injury on duty and has had to have multiple surgeries. She has an electrical stimulator implanted in her back that works on remote control. There have been times when she could not get up "and he has picked me up and carried me," Tommye said. When she calls in crisis, he drops everything and comes straight home, she said.

Tommye fully expected to be in a wheelchair at some point — though so far she has avoided that — and so Robert built their house in some woods north of Jacksonville with wide hallways and rounded corners. And a Barbie Room.

Tommye has collected Barbies since she owned her first. She kept the ones she had as a girl — amazingly undamaged, with no haircuts or missing limbs — in a hope chest. Now she has a huge collection, with Barbies, Midges, imitation Barbies, imitation Midges, Kens, and other dolls — a Princess Diana doll in fancy dress, dolls that are several feet tall, monster dolls. She asked for shelves; she got a room, painted pink and white. "I grabbed a Barbie box and took it to Sherwin Williams," Robert said. "First it was Pepto-Bismol." They got it right the second time, just like their marriage.

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