Pioneers in the computer dating game still together after nearly 50 years

Shelly and Larry Beaser at Franklin Field in spring 1967. They met in 1966 through a computer dating company.

Shelly Bronstein took a bus and two subways every day from Broomall to Temple University. After classes, she worked two jobs, including one as elevator operator at a women's clothing store - hardly a prospect-rich environment. She dated, but rarely met guys outside her political science program.

So when she saw the coupon in the Temple News in 1965 for Operation Match - the nation's first big computer dating service - she mailed in her $3, a lot of money in those days, hoping for fun and dates.

Over at the University of Pennsylvania, Operation Match was the rage. Larry Beaser was far more serious than social, and had joined a fraternity with the high GPA but low babe appeal. He was intrigued by computers, so very new, and the logic of computer dating.

"If it didn't work out," he reasoned, "we could spend the evening figuring out how this machine could possibly have matched us."

Founded by two Harvard juniors 50 years ago, Operation Match became a national fad. More than a million college students filled out questionnaires between 1965 and 1968.

Gene Shalit, in a Valentine's Day cover story for Look magazine in 1966, wrote that mixers and traditional campus mating rituals were now a thing of the past: "Punch bowls are out, punch cards are in."

After you sent in your $3 and coupon, you received a questionnaire, lengthy and detailed. Shelly, 19, a sophomore, and Larry, 20, a junior, both completed theirs in late 1965. They took their time, answering thoughtfully and honestly.

The questionnaire asked race, age, height, religion, social class, SAT score, grade average, hair and eye color, even family income - 1. Over $25,000 . . . 6. Under $5,000.

You ranked your attractiveness, cleanliness, conformity, and affection for children on a scale of 1 to 5. You specified if you were liberal or conservative.

There were many questions about religion: "Do you believe in a God who answers prayer?" "Dating someone of my own religion is 1. unimportant . . . 4. very important."

And of course, sex.

"Is extensive sexual activity preparation for marriage, part of 'growing up'? 1. Yes . . . 5. No."

Although they can't remember all their answers now - "not a clue," Larry says - both are sure they identified themselves as Jewish and said their religion was important to them.

They also both recall saying folk music was a big interest. It was the '60s - Vietnam, civil rights, and protest songs."The Times They Are a-Changin."

Shelly got a list with 20 names in early 1966. She saved it. Larry was 10th.

Larry didn't save his list. Shelly was on it, he says, but not at the top.

As boys called in January and February, Shelly wrote notes on her list. By one name she penned, "21, prelaw, excellent," referring to the quality of their initial conversation.

Another boy got, "21, premed, very doubtful." She recalls he talked too much about himself.

Then there is one name with a giant X through it.

"His first question was, 'How did you answer the sex question?' " Shelly said, "and I decided I didn't want to go out with him.

By Larry's name she had scribbled, "20, excellent, political science."

Both well remember that first phone call.

Shelly lived with her parents. She was watching the news. There was a big story about the United Nations, and Larry mentioned it. Shelly said she'd been watching, too, and expressed some opinion, and he seemed delighted, and she was delighted that he was delighted. In 1966, she said, women often were not taken very seriously.

"It was a significant call," Larry recalls. "It went very well. I decided to ask her out."

Larry was from Bethesda, Md. He had no car, no concept of the area. His roommate and best friend to this day, Mark Batshaw, lent him an old Rambler, but it was a foggy night in a faraway suburb, and Shelly was afraid he wouldn't make it.

He made it.

It was Friday, Feb. 12. They went to see a James Bond movie in King of Prussia, and then had pepperoni pizza with extra cheese - "which would kill us now," Shelly jokes.

There was a physical attraction, sure - as the literature for Operation Match said, "We provide the match, you provide the spark" - but what they most remember about the night was the rich conversation. Both were interested in serious things, war, peace, civil rights, saving the world.

They dated all spring, but not exclusively.

"I was committed to go through my list because it was fun," Larry said. Shelly dated others on her list as well.

They took a break that summer when Larry returned to Bethesda, but resumed dating in the fall.

Operation Match followed an academic calendar. Students could fill out a new questionnaire in September and potentially get a whole new set of names.

Each secretly tried again.

"We each figured - without telling the other - that we had done so well, we could certainly do better," Larry said.

It soon became evident what each had done. His name was on her new list, and hers on his.

"It was hysterical," Shelly said. "We were laughing. It was meant to be."

Jeff C. Tarr was the Harvard student who founded Operation Match with a friend, Vaughan Morrill. They were enterprising undergrads looking for ways to meet girls.

Tarr recruited two others to help out, including his roommate, David L. Crump, and Douglas H. Ginsburg, the future Supreme Court nominee, then a Cornell University dropout who later sold his share in the company to finish his degree work there.

They rented an early IBM computer the size of a classroom, paid $100 an hour for processing time in the middle of the night.

They sold in 1968, and the buyer converted the technology to helping colleges match roommates. Computer dating vanished until the Internet and arrived in the mid-1990s.

Tarr honed his entrepreneurial and computer skills on Operation Match, later using both to do risk arbitrage on Wall Street. He's now worth more than half a billion dollars, according to Crump.

Larry Beaser graduated from Penn and went to Harvard Law School. Shelly followed him to Boston a year later, earning a master's in education at Tufts. They married in June 1969, and are about to celebrate their 46th anniversary.

He is a partner at Blank Rome, chairman of the board of the Philadelphia Foundation, and a former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. A career educator - both public schoolteacher and college professor - Shelly was honored in May for her life's work by the SeniorLAW Center.

They have loved each other and their lives together for nearly 50 years. After decades in the suburbs, they moved into Center City a few years ago.

Larry's Penn roommate and best man, Mark Batshaw, now physician-in-chief at Children's National Health System in Washington, says he knew right away the two were perfectly matched.

"Larry was middle-aged at 18," he quipped. "She brought out fun and love and exuberance in him, and while she was always very bright, he allowed her intellect to develop and flourish."

Batshaw, by the way, had no interest in Operation Match. He was a scientist, and didn't believe a computer could lead him to love, nor did it satisfy his notion of romance. He met his wife at a mixer arranged by two Jewish grandmothers and proposed on the first date. He will also be married 46 years this summer, and Larry was his best man.

Larry and Shelly have two children.

"They have been stable and frankly boring my whole life," said younger daughter Barb Beaser-Konschak, 35. "Boring, happy, stable. I guess they're a pretty good model for how to do it."

Older daughter Deborah Beaser, 37, met her husband, Karl Yeh, on, marking a second generation to find love courtesy of a computer.

Larry Beaser proudly holds up pictures of his grandchildren, Sasha and Devin.

"Two kids," he says, "who would not be but for the computer."