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In a Class of Their Own

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Andie MacDowell wasn’t exactly a blushing bride—more like a hoarse, sore-throated one. But it had taken more than 25 years for the model-actress to hook up with former Gaffney Senior High schoolmate Rhett Hartzog, and she wasn’t about to let a little illness stand between her and the altar. So on the morning of Nov. 10, inside A Show of Hands salon in Asheville, N.C., where she goes twice monthly to get her hair and nails done, she muffled coughs for two hours while her stylist Veda Marino straightened her naturally curly locks. Then she jumped back in her Mercedes-Benz station wagon and returned to her nearby home, where she began preparing for the big moment. Vera Wang gown—check. Pearl earrings—check. Antibiotics—alas, check. As she had complained back at A Show of Hands, “I’m not even going to be able to drink at my own wedding.”

She hardly needed bubbly to bring on the good times. At 6:30 p.m. MacDowell, 43, elegant in a strapless white gown without a veil, stepped down the aisle of Asheville’s Central United Methodist Church on the decidedly wobbly arm of her tuxedo-clad son Justin, 15, who was hobbling on crutches after spraining his ankle playing basketball the day before. “He stepped on his mom’s dress at least twice,” one guest reported. After an hour-long ceremony in which the couple exchanged platinum bands (hers with diamonds) and vows, Hartzog, MacDowell and her children (Justin and daughters Rainey, 12, and Sarah Margaret, 7) lit a unity candle together. Moments later Hartzog’s brothers, Tommy, 54, Bobby, 52, and Charles, 34, wrapped him in a bear hug. And as the newlyweds stepped into a vintage London taxi to drive to the reception at the nearby Biltmore Forest Country Club, the groomsmen gathered around the car and gave Rhett a jubilant thumbs up. “Yeah!” they shouted. “You did it!”

So began the chorus of congratulations from some 450 guests, including MacDowell’s father, Marion, 76, and stepmother, Frances, 66 (her mother died when MacDowell was in her 20s), and Hartzog’s father, L.T., 81, and mother, Will, 77. Even MacDowell’s ex-husband, model-turned-contractor Paul Qualley, 43, whose 13-year union with her ended in 2000, offered tempered good wishes. “If her being happy translates to the kids being more secure,” says Qualley, who has settled in Asheville to be near his kids but was not at the wedding, “then that’s all good.” And about 200 miles away at the Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, where for nearly 10 years Hartzog, 42, served as an usher, congregants were delighted—most of them, anyway. “He’s leaving behind an awful lot of women who are sorry to see him off the market,” says one fellow usher. Adds another: “I wish I could have his little black book.”

Not a chance. As his former Atlanta neighbor Charline Race puts it, Hartzog “is a Southern gentleman.” One who just happens, she adds, “to ride a motorcycle and have dated a lot of good-looking girls.” After graduating from high school in Gaffney, S.C.—where he was a year behind MacDowell, whom he had never dated—Hartzog moved on to Gaffney’s Limestone College, graduating in 1983, while MacDowell took on the international modeling world, then Hollywood. After graduation, Hartzog, who had long helped at his family’s jewelry store, set up his own business in Atlanta and grew community roots. “He was always willing to help us but not just for one service—at all three,” says Peachtree usher Barbie Bosshardt, 55. “He made people feel welcome. He didn’t seem to be in a rush about anything.”

Including marriage. It wasn’t only that he didn’t find the right gal, say friends. But between golf (he has an under-10 handicap) and his work as a salesman, he didn’t have time for anything serious. Says Bob Barrett, 65, of his former neighbor (Hartzog now lives with MacDowell in her $765,000 five-bedroom house in Asheville): “He traveled so often that developing a relationship was difficult.” Then last fall MacDowell’s sister Julia MacDowell Fleming and her close friend, Hartzog’s sister-in-law Lizabeth Hartzog, urged Andie—who had moved to Asheville from Montana with Qualley a few months before they separated in 1999—to meet Rhett. She invited him to lunch and, as his mother declares, they “clicked immediately.” By July they were engaged. “I had a secret crush on her in high school,” Hartzog told PEOPLE shortly after he proposed. “She’s such a good person, a great mother and a good Christian. She’s just as pretty on the inside as she is on the outside.”

At the country club as newlyweds, the couple took to the floor for their first dance, “What a Wonderful World,” played by a five-piece band. Later, the band pulled the revelers away from the sushi bar and buffet of seafood, pasta and lamb to dance to a mix of oldies and Top 40 hits. “We partied until the wee hours,” says Hartzog friend Judy Nix. “It was like a Gaffney reunion.”

At around 1 a.m. the couple and some friends headed for a local restaurant, Huddle House, to wind down over coffee. An hour later Mr. and Mrs. Hartzog left for a cottage in town—and their new married life. Considering selling his custom-made Titan motorcycle, Hartzog is ready for a different diversion, according to friends: a baby. “That’s a priority,” says Barrett. It also seems the natural next step. “They seem comfortable together and really compatible,” says Bosshardt. “They just fit together. It’s just a joy.”

Karen S. Schneider

Michaele Ballard, Vickie Bane, Constance E. Richards, Don Sider and Linda Trischitta in Asheville, Jill Westfall in Atlanta and Karen Brailsford in Los Angeles