By ELLEN FUTTERMAN
When heartbreak struck Benjamin Hochman more than six years ago, with the death of his girlfriend, he didn’t know how he would recover. But time, a job change and fate conspiring in his favor allowed him to begin anew with Angela LaRocca, a vibrant woman he describes as “a human exclamation point.”
Although they were both living in Clayton, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, the two met by chance at a neighborhood Starbucks in November 2015. Ms. LaRocca had a networking meeting with an acquaintance, who spotted Mr. Hochman, the new sports columnist for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and introduced the two. Mr. Hochman and Ms. LaRocca exchanged business cards and soon became Facebook friends.
Over the next seven months, they chatted when they bumped into each other and occasionally texted. “I wasn’t sure if this thing with Benjamin was more a business relationship or if I was once again caught in the friend zone,” said Ms. LaRocca, an actress, producer and director who is also working as “chief catalyst” for a St. Louis-area business development and branding agency.
Ms. LaRocca had moved back to St. Louis, her hometown, in 2010 after several years in Chicago, where she attended Columbia College Chicago, and in Los Angeles, where she acted in short films and commercials and worked in event production at Universal Studios Hollywood and Wolfgang Puck Catering.
“I was 30, my biological clock was more or less ticking, and my parents were back living in St. Louis,” said Ms. LaRocca, who is now 37. “I was also shocked to find out how much entertainment business was in St. Louis, which was a huge part of why I wanted to be based here. And I knew I wanted to find a good guy with ‘Midwestern values’ to settle down with.”
Figuring it was “a game of numbers,” she joined Match.com and went on more dates than she cares to remember. “I thought if I put myself out there forcefully, I would land somebody,” she said, laughing. “I don’t want to say it was one disaster after another, but after a few years of one or two dates and then nothing really developing, you kind of ask yourself: ‘Is it me? What’s going on here?’”
When Mr. Hochman, 37, met Ms. LaRocca, he was also getting reacclimated to St. Louis, where he had grown up but had been away from for nearly two decades. “I still hadn’t unpacked my boxes,” he said. “I was going to sports events and relearning the city.”
Mr. Hochman had moved back to St. Louis from Denver two months earlier to take the newspaper job he had coveted since he was 12. He wanted to get to know “that awesome girl,” he said, alluding to Ms. LaRocca, “but this avalanche of life was coming at me. I had so much going on.”
What Mr. Hochman and Ms. LaRocca didn’t know was that two regular patrons at the same neighborhood Starbucks where they had first met were actually scheming to get the two together.
Lou Cohen and Paul Gallant, both 84, would meet at that Clayton coffee shop most Sunday mornings. And one week, Ms. LaRocca dropped by their table to say hello to Mr. Cohen, who lives in the same high-rise condominium as her parents. Mr. Cohen is the father of Andy Cohen, a host on the TV channel Bravo.
Mr. Gallant recalls being taken with “how adorable and bubbly” Ms. LaRocca was. After she walked away, Mr. Cohen mentioned how Ms. LaRocca’s mother, Irene LaRocca, had been asking if he knew of a nice guy for her daughter to meet. “I told Irene anyone I know would be too old and unsuitable,” Mr. Cohen said.
Mr. Gallant took out his phone and called a good friend to inquire about his son’s dating status. That good friend happened to be Mr. Hochman’s father, Jere Hochman, who until recently served as a deputy secretary of education in New York State for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. “Heck if I have any idea who Benjamin is dating,” the elder Mr. Hochman told him.
It wasn’t until June 2016 that Mr. Hochman and Ms. LaRocca’s casual friendship took a more serious turn. He had invited her out to dinner, and on the day of that date, Irene LaRocca called her daughter with an important message: “Lou says you have to meet this Benjamin Hochman guy.”
Her daughter said, “I was like, ‘Mom, I’m going on a date with Benjamin in four hours.’”
After that dinner date, their relationship took off. It wasn’t just realizing that each shared a deep interest in ’90s pop culture or that they both adored St. Louis, baseball and music by the Beatles and Nelly and the St. Lunatics. They also uncovered that they were born at the same hospital three months apart.
On their second date to hear the St. Louis Symphony, Ms. LaRocca surreptitiously displayed a Tweety Bird Pez dispenser in the middle of the concert, mimicking a mutually favorite “Seinfeld” episode. Mr. Hochman remembers thinking how attracted he was to her confidence and zaniness.
“Nothing about me or Angela is normal, and I think that is beautiful,” Mr. Hochman said. “She’s super-pretty but doesn’t carry herself like someone who is super-pretty. She’s down-to-earth, comfortable in her own skin and isn’t afraid to be goofy.
“We bring out the best versions of each other,” he continued. “I’d rather do nothing with Angela than something with most people.”
When they were out to eat, on their third date, Ms. LaRocca enlisted Mr. Hochman to audition for a short independent film she wrote with her brother, in which her brother would star and she would direct. She raised $6,200 through a crowdfunding site to make the film, “Must Fool Everyone,” which was shot in nine days.
“She started telling me about this cousin character who thinks he’s cool and a ladies’ man but is pretty much a doofus,” said Mr. Hochman, who performed stand-up comedy during his time in Denver. “So I began reading the menu as if I were him, mispronouncing stuff. I wasn’t auditioning, just goofing around.” And while Ms. LaRocca was nervous to cast someone she had just started dating, she said he mastered the real audition and got the part.
Family and friends remark on how the two match wits at the same level, and complement each other’s playfulness and easy personality. Graham Watson-Ringo says she knew Ms. LaRocca was perfect for Mr. Hochman minutes after meeting her.
“We’re at a restaurant, and they’re talking about doing a two-person show where they re-enact scenes from ‘Billy Madison,’” said Ms. Watson-Ringo, who attended journalism school at the University of Missouri with Mr. Hochman.
“That’s when it hit me,” she continued. “Angela is the female version of Benjamin.”
A decade or so earlier, Ms. Watson-Ringo had introduced Mr. Hochman to her childhood friend Erin Meines. Mr. Hochman and Ms. Meines dated and later lived together in Denver. In January 2011, while he was in Cleveland on assignment for The Denver Post, Ms. Meines died unexpectedly at their home. She was 31.
An autopsy was done, but no cause of death could be determined. Murder, suicide, substance abuse and all the usual diseases and sicknesses were ruled out. Mr. Hochman was left devastated.
“Benjamin pretty much shut down,” Ms. Watson-Ringo said. “In terms of Ben being Ben, I don’t feel he got back to the person I always knew until a few years ago.”
Mr. Hochman admits it took a long time for him to feel whole again. He fretted about relating this chapter of his life to Ms. LaRocca, mainly because he didn’t want her to feel as though she were a replacement, or that he didn’t have closure.
“When he told me about Erin, my first concern was that he was O.K.,” Ms. LaRocca said. “It just heightened everything and made me love him harder. People deal with loss and grief in different ways, but Benjamin assured me he had healed, a lot of time had elapsed and he loves me completely. And I feel that every day.”
On July 1, the couple were married at a St. Louis residence owned by family friends of Ms. LaRocca’s, whose children she babysat for as a teenager. Her brother, Mark LaRocca Jr., and Mr. Hochman’s sister, Emily Hochman, having been recently ordained by the Universal Life Church, presided over the ceremony.
Afterward, 180 guests enjoyed a backyard baseball-themed reception, with John Ulett, the public address announcer at Busch Stadium, introducing the wedding party over a loudspeaker, and the bride and groom entering to Nelly’s “Batter Up.”
In toasting the couple, the best man, Geoff Gloeckler, acknowledged the hardship Mr. Hochman had been through before adding: “When Ben told us about this new girl named Angela, the way he talked about her was different. He said, ‘She’s everything I’m looking for, and she’s even things I didn’t know I was looking for.’”