Sean Eldridge, left, a native of Ottawa Hills, and Chris Hughes, one of Facebook's co-founders, plan to marry next year.
He had never signed up for Myspace, or even tried its forerunner, Friendster. The 2004 Ottawa Hills High School graduate, then living in Cambridge, Mass., was completely unconnected to the emerging world of online social networking.
His status changed after a blind date that November with a cofounder of Facebook, a Harvard student named Chris Hughes who would later be portrayed in the Academy Award-nominated movie The Social Network. The two openly gay young men hit it off, and soon entered a relationship that has spanned 5 1/2 years and culminated with a marriage engagement announcement last month in the couple’s New York City home.
Over the course of their brunch date, Mr. Eldridge learned of Mr. Hughes’ roles as spokesman and sounding board for Facebook, which was created in his dorm room suite. Mr. Hughes was the former roommate of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive officer, who had dropped out of Harvard a year earlier to develop the site full-time in Palo Alto, Calif.
Today Facebook has more than 600 million users in more than 190 countries and is valued as a company at $50 billion. Mr. Zuckerberg is considered the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, and ranked 35th on Forbes’ annual list of richest Americans. His net worth was estimated last year at $6.9 billion.
Mr. Hughes, 27, also played a role in President Obama’s election campaign. He is estimated to be worth many millions of dollars through his ownership stake and stock options.
The New York Post recently speculated his worth at more than $500 million.
Mr. Hughes wasn’t yet a millionaire the day that Mr. Eldridge met him.
“Meeting him was just like meeting any other student, though with this side job that was Facebook,” Mr. Eldridge said in a phone interview from New York, where the couple hopes to marry in 2012. “We very quickly fell in love.”
Life has changed dramatically for the Ottawa Hills alum since that brunch date: He has worked in Silicon Valley, hung out with multimillionaires, dined at the White House, partied with Ivanka Trump, attended two Ivy League schools, organized the student movement around President Obama’s 2008 campaign, and currently holds a nationally visible position with a leading advocacy group for same-sex marriage.
All that by age 24. He is also now on Facebook — “I literally joined the day I met Chris.”
The son of two doctors, Steve Eldridge and Sarah Eldridge, Sean Eldridge was not publicly out about his sexuality during his years at Ottawa Hills High School, where he was involved in theater, ran varsity track, and graduated in the top 10 percent of his class. He was also a youth committee representative for the city of Toledo’s Board of Community Relations.
“Growing up I really didn’t see out people, so it just didn’t seem like an option,” he said. “There were no out students or out faculty or real out adults that I knew growing up in Ottawa Hills and Toledo.”
Mr. Eldridge said he came out as gay during his first year at Deep Springs College, a small, prestigious all-male, two-year college in rural California where students balance liberal arts studies with farm chores. Many students later transfer to Ivy League colleges, and Mr. Eldridge went on to Brown University in Providence, R.I.
But first he moved to the Boston area and took a break to gain work experience. A former Deep Springs classmate, then a Harvard student, suggested that he and Mr. Hughes meet.
“From that first real date on we became a pretty serious couple pretty quickly,” Mr. Eldridge said.
‘The Social Network’
Back then, Facebook wasn’t nearly the global phenomenon it is today. Started in February, 2004, for just the Harvard community, the site expanded to all colleges and, in 2005, began accepting high school students and then anybody with an e-mail address.
Mr. Zuckerberg and another co-founder, Dustin Moskovitz, dropped out of Harvard to work on Facebook. Mr. Hughes and a third co-founder, Eduardo Saverin, stayed on to graduate with their class in 2006.
The early days of Facebook are the subject of the film The Social Network, which has been nominated for eight Oscars at tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony, including Best Picture.
Mr. Hughes is played by actor Patrick Mapel. The Hughes character has few speaking lines but is present in dorm room scenes. In real life, Mr. Hughes was the second Facebook user after Mr. Zuckerberg. Mr. Eldridge, who spent time at the Palo Alto Facebook headquarters portrayed in the film, says the script contains much fiction.
“I know Mark, I know Dustin, I know Chris, and through them I have a very good idea of what happened,” Mr. Eldridge said. “It was all a lot more boring than that. The film was I would say what most Hollywood films are: it was a good story, and it was a fictional story.”
Mr. Eldridge and Mr. Hughes moved together to Palo Alto in 2006. Mr. Eldridge worked in executive support at a start-up software company while Mr. Hughes worked on Facebook as a spokesman and product manager. An article in Fast Company magazine recounted how Facebook that fall began allowing political candidates to create modified profile pages. Mr. Hughes provided customer service for the staff of a freshman senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.
Mr. Hughes left Facebook for Chicago in early 2007 to become the campaign’s social media guru. A number of Mr. Zuckerberg’s close friends had also left the company. Mr. Hughes was later quoted in the book The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick as saying that they, like him, became fed up.
“It’s so much better to be friends with Mark than to work with him,” Mr. Hughes said in the book.
Working for the Obama campaign, Mr. Hughes helped develop a volunteer networking site, My.BarackObama.com, that was credited with planning 200,000 events and raising $30 million on 70,000 personal fund-raising pages, according to the Fast Company article, which dubbed Mr. Hughes “The Kid Who Made Obama President.”
Mr. Eldridge also got involved and started splitting his time between college in Rhode Island and the candidate’s Chicago headquarters. He helped organize the group Students for Barack Obama.
The President apparently appreciated their help; he invited the couple to the White House as guests to his first state dinner in November, 2009.
The men have lived in New York since Mr. Eldridge graduated from Brown in spring, 2009. Mr. Hughes has visited Toledo and Mr. Eldridge’s parents on several occasions, including the 90th birthday party for Sean’s grandmother.
Dr. Steve Eldridge recalled how party-goers were impressed by the young and unassuming out-of-town visitor, who wasn’t keen about flaunting his wealth.
“The universal comment was how down-to-earth Chris was,” said Dr. Eldridge, chairman of the radiology department at St. Luke’s Hospital and executive vice president of Consulting Radiologists Corp. He also has talked with his future son-in-law as the young man grappled with “the pure shock of not needing to work for a living anymore.”
Mr. Hughes declined to comment on personal money matters, as did Mr. Eldridge when asked if the couple plans a prenuptial agreement.
According to The Facebook Effect, which was written with Facebook’s cooperation, Mr. Hughes is among a group of at least four other current and former employees who own “a substantial share” monetarily but less than 1 percent of the company.
But Mr. Hughes hasn’t chosen a life of leisure. Last fall he launched his own nonprofit Internet start-up, Jumo, a social network for social activism that aims to connect people with philanthropic causes.
Mr. Eldridge left Columbia University’s law school last winter to devote himself full-time to the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage. He made his decision after the New York legislature rejected a bill that would have allowed gay couples to wed.
Mr. Eldridge joined the growing staff of Freedom to Marry, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by civil rights attorney Evan Wolfson. As the organization’s spokesman and political director, Mr. Eldridge advocates for “marriage equality” in national interviews and debates, and also oversees fund-raising and plans for the organization’s future Washington office.
Freedom to Marry’s goal is to have same-sex marriage in every state. It also seeks to overturn the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The Obama administration announced last week that the Justice Department will stop defending the law in court because the President believes it to be unconstitutional.
Gay marriage is legal in only five states and the district of Columbia. Ohio voters in 2004 approved an amendment that restricts marriage to one man and one woman.
As a couple, Mr. Eldridge and Mr. Hughes recently matched $225,000 in donations to same-sex marriage efforts, including $100,000 to Freedom to Marry. They announced their engagement last month during a fund-raiser held in their lower Manhattan loft. Guests included Ivanka Trump, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman.
“As wonderful as it is to have the money that they donated, I even more value Sean’s talent and passion and partnership in the actual work,” Mr. Wolfson said. “This is someone who’s not just writing checks, but is really rolling up his sleeves and helping build a campaign day-to-day.”
Mr. Eldridge and Mr. Hughes are hoping that New York law will change in time for their wedding, set for sometime in 2012.
“As a gay man, I want the freedom to marry Sean so we can build a family and a life together over the long term,” Mr. Hughes said. “I think marriage is a basic fundamental freedom that every American should have.”
Contact JC Reindl at:
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