In her second year as a client, Tammy Shaklee’s matchmaking service introduced her to Clif Mitchell.
"He was by far, hands down what I was looking for," Shaklee says of the insurance numbers man. Still, the former director of the Make-A-Wish Foundation Austin didn’t rush things. Shaklee, previously married in Amarillo, dated Mitchell for 2½ years before they married.
They will celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary on New Year’s Eve.
Shaklee, 45, was so pleased with the service, It’s Just Lunch — which unlike online-based sites provides only in-person introductions — she offered to buy the Austin franchise.
"When you are in love you want everybody to be in love," she says. "I know it’s disgusting for some, but hopefully it can be inspirational."
Learning that the franchise was unavailable, she zeroed in on a friend’s insight: There were no such It’s Just Lunch services for professionals who happen to be gay. Sure, some traditional matchmakers on the coasts had branched out, but none focused exclusively on the gay community.
So Shaklee spent months interviewing gay men in medicine, education, politics, philanthropy business, media and other professions about what they expected from a service that might foster introductions, courting, dating and long-term relationships.
In November, she launched He’s For Me. On Friday, with the help of the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, she’ll quietly cut the ribbon on the company’s downtown offices (the location is not public, to protect the confidentiality of clients).
She’s already scouting personnel for branches in Dallas and Houston.
"I kept thinking: Why hasn’t anyone done this?" she says. "It’s such a good idea, it must already exist."
A farm work ethic
Shaklee (pronounced SHACK-ly like the vitamin company) comes to her new calling with a history of drive and accomplishment.
The daughter of a diesel mechanic who returned to farming wheat in northwest Oklahoma and a bank manager in Oklahoma — her parents divorced when she was 3 — Shaklee signed up for every activity at her Jet, Okla., high school. Not just 4H, but speech, theater, yearbook and basketball, even though she had never dribbled a ball before her freshman year.
"In order for us to have a basketball team," she says of her senior class of 14 students, "everyone had to show up."
She set her sights on broadcast reporting early on, then studied at Oklahoma State University while working her way through school and driving three hours to serve in a weekend internship as a reporter with KSWO.
"Needless to say, I’m good at time management," she says. "I was used to working hard, getting your business done, keeping up your grades up and moving on."
She took every reporting assignment at the station, including rooftop coverage of a homecoming parade. Upon graduation, she chose between starting jobs in Roanoke, Va., and Amarillo.
"My $5 got me to Amarillo," she says. "That’s what I had in the bank when I graduated."
Soon at KFDA, she was named a late-night segment anchor. Her very first interview was with State Sen. Teel Bivins , an expert in finance and education. A year later, the late senator offered her the job of district director to look after constituents’ concerns.
When she put him off, he offered to double her meager reporting income. She decided to call the two-year commitment her "political science course." She stayed on for six years, supervising older workers and opening an office in Midland-Odessa when redistricting paired the cities with Republican Bivins’ Panhandle base.
"We really believed we were making a difference," she says. "Bivins didn’t claim bipartisanship, but he could explain to his constituency why you need to reach across the aisle and compromise."
After graduating Leadership Texas, a statewide women’s leadership program, Shakelee turned from politics to the nonprofit world. At that time, the $150 million Amarillo Area Foundation was trying to turn around a failing high school with a $5 million project.
"They promised families a golden gift of books, fees and tuition," Shaklee says. "But they didn’t understand the family structure at home that sometimes meant the students were the first generation in high school, much less college."
So Shaklee replicated a program started in Philadelphia that put educated couples in mentorship positions with the families at the high school.
The foundation began to see success and tapped Shaklee as its first director of donor services.
"I’m good at storytelling," she says. "Storytelling became fundraising."
She honed her expertise in turning around faltering nonprofits, which brought her to Austin to salvage the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants the wishes of children with life-threatening conditions. She found a group that was going broke and was masking the problems.
"It’s about telling the true story and not hiding the challenges," she says. "There was a lack of storytelling and transparency. And at Make-A-Wish the stories write themselves. As long as you can tell the story, you can fix it."
Life’s balancing act
With her farm-work ethic, Shaklee turned a two-year commitment to Make-A-Wish into almost six years service with little time left over for personal life.
"As you become a busy professional, you discover you can hire everything," she says. "Why not hire a matchmaker?"
It’s Just Lunch stood out because after a confidential interview process, one was set up with only quality connections.
"I became completely convinced that this was the way to do it," she says. On the way to founding He’s For Me, she interviewed gay friends one-on-one, then called on women in media to reach more diverse professionals.
Along the way, she realized that their issues were also specific to the city they lived in. In Austin’s case, there’s no "gayborhood" where singles, couples and allies gather to meet up.
"I found that there were all these newcomers who came to Austin determined to succeed," she says. "The last thing they do is think about themselves."
Amusingly, the only thing the gay men knew about matchmaking they learned from reality shows, where the stars are made for reality-show unreality.
So what are these white-collar men seeking?
"Honestly, I think they are looking for their equals in independence, success, achievement and drive," she says.
Early telephone and live interviews often revealed that the men came with expectations formed decades ago.
"We help them differentiate between instant gratification and long-term relationships," she says. "We find out about their lives, hopes and dreams."
With the help of a stylist and counselor, she’s also helped coach her clients on a fresh look and a fresh outlook.
"I’m really seeing some men come alive," she says. "I’ve seen a change of demeanor and confidence. That doesn’t mean romance has blossomed yet, but …"
She emphasizes that He’s For Me is not event matchmaking.
"We don’t put a bunch of gay men in a room and let them figure it out," she says. "We are focused on the key qualities and key values in the men they want to meet."