August 13, 2001 12:00 PM

In the hallways of Gaffney Senior High School, Rhett Hartzog, a strapping member of the golf team, nurtured a secret crush on brunette beauty Rosalie MacDowell. Rosalie, a Bible Club officer a grade ahead of Hartzog, “thought he was cute,” recalls her sister Beverly. But the girl the student newspaper predicted “will get rich” had other diversions. Using the name Andie MacDowell, she went on to find fame as a model and actress, married, had three children and divorced. Then last fall, 25 years after leaving Gaffney, S.C., MacDowell finally found romance with her old schoolmate Rhett.

“They were teasing each other, ‘Why didn’t you ask me for a date when we were young?’ says his mother, Will Hartzog, 77. Each answered, “Because I didn’t think you’d give me the time of day.” Now they have all the time in the world. On July 14 Hartzog, 42, an Atlanta jewelry businessman, proposed to MacDowell, 43, over dinner at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C. A 2-carat-plus platinum-and-diamond solitaire ring sealed the deal. “We both started crying,” says Hartzog. “We had talked about getting married, but I would say she was surprised.” The duo plan to tie the knot this November in Asheville, where MacDowell lives with her children Justin, 14, Rainey, 12, and Sarah Margaret, 6. (She and her husband of 13 years, model-turned-contractor Paul Qualley, separated in I 1999 and divorced soon after.) Says MacDowell’s sister Babs Rogers Richard, 54: “She’s the happiest I’ve seen her in ages.”

By all accounts, so is Hartzog, a 6’3″ Harley-Davidson rider and lifelong eligible bachelor. “Ten percent of Atlanta’s female population is in mourning because of this news,” jokes his best friend Frank Herndon, 43. So why wait so long to choose a partner? “It was a case of not meeting the right woman,” says Herndon. “It wasn’t that he was afraid of commitment.”

Eventually the right woman came to him. Several months before they split up, MacDowell and Qualley had moved from Montana to North Carolina to be closer to her family. The MacDowells and Hartzogs have been friends for generations (Hartzog’s uncle is even married to a distant cousin of MacDowell’s). After Andie’s divorce, her sister Julia MacDowell Fleming, 50, and Hartzog’s sister-in-law Lizabeth Hartzog, also 50, conspired to get the former schoolmates together, urging each to call the other.

MacDowell made the first move, inviting Hartzog to lunch in Atlanta last November. “I was somewhat surprised and glad to hear from her,” says Hartzog, who had followed her career through media reports and mutual friends but rarely seen her since high school. After graduating, he majored in business administration at Limestone College in Gaffney; she dropped out of Winthrop College in Rock Hill, S.C., to forge a modeling career in New York City and Paris.

Soon after that first date, the pair began seeing each other at least every other weekend—dining out at Atlanta restaurants, visiting the Spoleto arts festival in Charleston in May and meeting on the links, where avid golfer Hartzog has been tutoring his bride-to-be. Reports of MacDowell stepping out with Dennis Quaid, her costar in the August HBO movie Dinner with Friends, “never threatened Rhett,” says his friend Herndon. “He’s a confident guy.”

Indeed, friends say Hartzog and MacDowell seemed a natural match. “Once they decided they were going to date, they had that glowy glow,” says Herndon’s wife, Jodi. “If she is next to him, his arm is always around her. She’s got that giddy laugh with him.” As for MacDowell’s movie-star status, “you wouldn’t know it unless you knew it,” says Will Hartzog, who watched MacDowell help in the kitchen at the family’s Fourth of July bash.

In fact the pair are both more civic-than cinema-minded. MacDowell, who attends the Peachtree Presbyterian Church with Hartzog every Sunday when she’s in town, is hosting events to raise $1 million for Andie’s Camp for Kids, a summer camp near Asheville for children with debilitating diseases. Hartzog has helped coordinate fund-raisers for cystic fibrosis. With 11 nieces and nephews, friends say he will make a great stepdad to MacDowell’s three kids—and perhaps father more. “That’s to be talked about,” he says.

His first big challenge: getting used to premieres, paparazzi and other requirements of MacDowell’s career. “I think it’s going to be a major adjustment for him,” says Jodi Herndon. “Showbiz is not his personality at all.” Fortunately Hollywood is 2,000 miles away from Asheville, where Hartzog is looking forward to settling down with MacDowell and her children after selling his three-bedroom brick-facade house in Marietta, Ga. The moral of the story? Says Hartzog: “Just be patient and wait for the best.”

Samantha Miller

Linda Trischitta and Jill Westfall in Atlanta, Michaele Ballard in Asheville and Don Sider in Gaffney

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