Where Words Matter: Politics, Fiction, Romance, Scrabble

Blair Thornburgh and Josh Maxwell were married Aug. 4 at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia.

Blair Thornburgh and Josh Maxwell first met about seven years ago at a backyard party at her parents’ Philadelphia house, but at the time, neither seemed the least bit romantically interested in the other.

Ms. Thornbugh was home on break from the University of Chicago, where she graduated with a degree in medieval studies. Mr. Maxwell, recently elected mayor of Downingtown, Pa., was a student in the public policy graduate program that her father, David Thornburgh, ran at the University of Pennsylvania. Both had been dating other people.

And then there was the age gap. “I definitely thought he was cute in an offhand way, but I was also 20 and I thought, he’s so old,” Ms. Thornburgh said of Mr. Maxwell, who was 26 at the time.

When they met again in 2016, the age concern had receded for Ms. Thornburgh, and a sense of possibility took hold. But it wasn’t because Mr. Maxwell, twice-elected mayor by then, was now single and still attractive. She saw him as muse potential for a novel she was writing.

Ms. Thornburgh, the granddaughter of Dick Thornburgh, the former Pennsylvania governor and United States attorney general, had been writing fiction since her late teens. Her debut novel, “Who’s That Girl” (HarperTeen, 2017) was lauded for its honest portrayal of the awkwardness of adolescence. In 2015, she dived into a book idea that germinated years earlier involving a young slacker who inadvertently becomes mayor of a Pennsylvania town.

She would quickly learn that the protagonist of a forthcoming book she is now working on, “The King of Jerksville,” actually didn’t have much in common with Mr. Maxwell. “Ted Dunker is basically the most unlikely candidate to become mayor of his town,” she said of her character. “Not really driven, not very confident, your typical teenager.”

One similarity between him and Mr. Maxwell, however, was that they both found political glory at a young age.

Mr. Maxwell’s 2009 run for mayor of Downingtown, a borough of 10,000 about 40 miles from Philadelphia, wasn’t on a lark. In 2006, just before his junior year at West Chester University, he moved back home to help his mother and three siblings after his parents split up. The move derailed his plans to attend law school. “So I decided if I’m going to be there and not in law school, I’m going to get involved with the town,” he said.

David Thornburgh, who worked directly with Mr. Maxwell on an independent study project while he was at Penn’s Fels Institute, was impressed. “Josh was just this very solid guy who was kind of wise beyond his years,” Mr. Thornburgh said. Which is why, after Mr. Maxwell graduated, he kept in touch. In 2016, he invited Mr. Maxwell to sit on a panel for young political hopefuls in Philadelphia.

“The presidential election had just happened, and there was a surge of interest in getting involved in politics among young people,” Mr. Thornburgh said. The panel he put together included civic activists who could talk about the ins and outs of running for office and serving. “I knew Blair was very interested in the politics of the time, so I thought she’d want to come,” he said. “I didn’t ask her intentionally to fix her up with Josh.”

Still, he added, “I guess I could rightfully claim to be matchmaker.”

Ms. Thornburgh, 28, an editor at Quirk Books in Philadelphia, liked what Mr. Maxwell, 34, had to say during the panel discussion. Her ears also perked when he mentioned being single.

Despite what she called her “pedigree as a Pennsylvania Republican scion” — her grandfather was attorney general under George H.W. Bush and governor from 1979-1987 — Ms. Thornburgh has long shared Mr. Maxwell’s left-leaning views. She canvassed for Barack Obama in 2008. And these days, “I hang on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s every word,” she said, referring to the young Democratic candidate for New York’s 14th congressional district.

When the panel was over, she reintroduced herself to Mr. Maxwell and asked if she could interview him for her novel. Days later, they met for sandwiches.

At MilkBoy, a restaurant in Philadelphia’s Center City, Mr. Maxwell regaled her with newbie-mayor stories, like the time a flood wreaked townwide havoc. But the meeting felt more datelike than businesslike. “We had one of those conversations where you want to tell each other so much, you can’t stay on track,” Ms. Thornburgh said.

Mr. Maxwell liked that her hair, which she wears in a pixie cut, was pink. “But what I really thought is, this person has an active mind and can really hold my attention,” he said. “I wanted to spend a lot more time with her.”

That, of course, is exactly what happened. By January 2017, Mr. Maxwell was whiling away weekend afternoons playing Scrabble with Ms. Thornburgh at her Philadelphia apartment. He thought of her as his girlfriend, though he hadn’t yet told his mother and siblings about their deepening relationship. That changed abruptly when Mr. Maxwell, who has epilepsy, had a seizure in January 2017.

Ms. Thornburgh remembers being on an exercise bike at the gym when her phone buzzed with an apology: Mr. Maxwell was being rushed to the hospital and couldn’t make their date that evening. She jumped off the bike and sped to the hospital.

Mr. Maxwell’s three siblings were on their way, too. “We all showed up in the emergency room, and I’m all sweaty in my gym clothes, and they have no idea who I am. I was like, ‘Hi, I’m Blair,’” Ms. Thornburgh said. Mr. Maxwell’s mother, Beverly Maxwell, asked one of her daughters to snap a picture so she could see the woman her son had been worried about standing up.

“I got Josh on the phone at the hospital and he was concerned because he didn’t want this person he called his girlfriend to be upset,” Ms. Maxwell said. “We were all thinking, ‘Does he really have a girlfriend?’ We weren’t sure if he was confused.”

While his family wasn’t sure about his relationship status, just about everyone on his train from Downingtown to Philadelphia apparently was. Mr. Maxwell made Ms. Thornburgh a coffee table at Dane Decor, a furniture shop in Downingtown where he worked part time, and he brought it to her for Valentine’s Day via public transportation. “It’s this big hulking piece of wood, and he carried it all the way through town,” Ms. Thornburgh said. “That’s when I knew this guy’s for real. We immediately played Scrabble on it.”

In the summer of 2017, “Who’s That Girl” came out and Ms. Thornburgh completed an M.F.A. low-residency program at Hamline University. She also decided to move out of her Philadelphia apartment and give small-town living a try.

The couple found a house to rent in Downingtown. Both became commuters to Philadelphia — Ms. Thornburgh for her editing job, and Mr. Maxwell, whose mayoral duties are “a part-time gig” for his work overseeing projects at Overseas Strategic Consulting, which develops global economic initiatives.

Mr. Maxwell was ready to propose before Ms. Thornburgh moved to Downingtown. “I remember we went out to dinner to celebrate the book coming out and I was like, ‘Name your time, give me your time frame,’” he said. In November, he secured a white-gold diamond solitaire ring his grandmother, who died in 2004, had given an aunt to keep for him.

On Dec. 4, Mr. Maxwell, feeling stressed out, suggested a hike in the rolling hills of Chester County. Twenty minutes in, they reached a scenic trail with no other hikers around. Mr. Maxwell paused, ready with a speech about loving her with all his heart, and pulled out the ring, which he had stuck in his pocket without a box.

She said yes before he could finish proposing. “I immediately started crying,” she said.

Later that day, a visit to the Downingtown Public Library, where the mayor was to show his support at a fund-raiser, turned into a celebration. “Not to be too ‘Gilmore Girls,’ but we were in this small town and everyone we wanted to share the news with was there and so happy for us,” Ms. Thornburgh said. “I just hope we didn’t upstage the library.”

On Aug. 4, about 100 Downingtown residents trekked to Philadelphia, where Ms. Thornburgh and Mr. Maxwell were married at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill by the Rev. Cynthia A. Jarvis, with assistance from the Rev. Brigid Boyle. Both are Presbyterian ministers who have known Ms. Thornburgh since she was 6.

The bride, wearing an ivory Nicole Miller column dress, a long veil and her signature eyeglasses, walked down the aisle with her mother, Rebecca McKillip Thornburgh, and her father to meet a broad-smiling Mr. Maxwell. He wore a royal blue suit with a yellow rose boutonniere. Mrs. Thornburgh and Ms. Maxwell each read bible passages from behind a podium before the couple were pronounced married in front of 192 guests. They then raised their joined hands in victory.

Ginny Thornburgh, Ms. Thornburgh’s grandmother, lingered in the church with her husband, Dick Thornburgh, who is now 86 and uses a wheelchair, as guests filed into the church yard to toast the couple. The longtime political wife, has been a mentor to Ms. Thornburgh and a supporter of Mr. Maxwell’s political career. (She and Mr. Thornburgh had contributed to his unsuccessful campaign for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives earlier this year.)

She offered some advice for her granddaughter as she embarked on a life of future campaigns and elections. “In the political world, there’s going to be criticisms,” she said. “Always remember to think about where the criticism is coming from. And love your husband.”

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