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NBC 'Today' host Willie Geist and wife Christina have been together since middle school. / Andrew Brusso for USA Weekend

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It all began in Mr. Kaplan’s sixth-grade homeroom at George Washington Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J. As the new kid in town, Willie Geist looked around at his classmates and spotted 11-year-old Christina Sharkey. “I vividly remember seeing her,” he said. “She was noteworthy for a sixth-grade boy. I kept an eye on her.”

More than two decades later, he’s still keeping his eye on Christina. Willie, 37, host of the Today show, headed straight for his wife, who was already in the makeup chair, when he arrived for USA WEEKEND’s photo shoot and interview. Only then did he turn his attention to the forest of heart-shaped balloons, heart-shaped boxes of chocolate and masses of red roses on the pink-hued studio set. He looked stricken. Within minutes, ground rules were set: The photographer promised not to make Willie look foolish; Willie agreed to pose with the candy if he could also eat it.

After spending an afternoon with the Geists — an experience including foolishness and candy — it was clear that these two are, first and foremost, great friends.

The road to romance

“We’ve gone through almost every life stage of growing up together,” Christina says. Inseparable in middle school, the two attended high school together. Their first date was in the ninth grade, but “she moved on to the cool, older guys. Guys with cars — that was her demographic,” Willie recalls. By junior year, they were a couple. After college together at Vanderbilt, they branched out, but the underlying bond was solid, and they were married in May 2003.

As newlyweds, the Geists lived in Atlanta, where Willie began his television career as a sports producer at CNN. “It was a fun city for us,” Christina says, “but it wasn’t home.” A job for Willie with Fox Sports brought them to New York. The show was canceled, but it was worth the move to be closer to friends and family. “Luckily, it only took me a couple of months to find a job once we moved back here,” Christina recalls, “so I carried us for a little while, and then he ended up at MSNBC.” Christina rose through the ranks at Johnson & Johnson as a product design strategist.

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At MSNBC, Willie became a senior producer of The Situation With Tucker Carlson. His command of politics and affable on-camera presence soon meant that Willie was spending less time producing the show and more time bantering on-air with Carlson. He went on to become co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe and host of Way Too Early With Willie Geist, a cult favorite for early risers who liked a shot of irreverent humor with their news and coffee. Since November, Willie has been host of the third hour of Today and a regular substitute for anchor Matt Lauer.

'We're spoiled'

Life in New York City means the Geists and their children, Lucie, 5, and George, 3, get plenty of quality time with their extended family. They often return to suburban Ridgewood, where childhood friends are raising their own families. It’s a close-knit crowd: Each of Christina’s three siblings is married to a high school classmate. “I don’t know what was in the water,” she jokes.

The Geist children see both sets of grandparents weekly, or daily. “We had the foresight back in Atlanta that this was going to be our ‘normal,’ and that’s why we wanted to be back home,” Willie says. “We’re spoiled and our parents are spoiled. It’s so good for the kids — they have this very close, relaxed relationship with their grandparents.”

Says Christina, who is now a stay-at-home mom: “It’s great for our kids that they know so many family members by name at such a young age. And that’s why we’re raising our kids in New York. And so that Willie can get to the office at 4 in the morning.”

A special journey

The Geists have a date a couple of times a week. “Life gets so chaotic. I could be on my BlackBerry around the clock,” Willie says. One perk of getting to bed early is always getting a good table, he explains. “When you call a good New York restaurant, they always say, ‘You can come at 5 p.m. or midnight,’ and I say, ‘We’ll take the 5.’ So, many times we’ll be sitting in a beautiful restaurant alone.”

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Of Willie’s growing celebrity, Christina says: “He’s always been this person who doesn’t seek out the spotlight. He’s never been the class clown. He’s just a natural. ... People are drawn to him, and it has always been that way. Of course, I’m very proud of him, but it’s no surprise to me that he’s in the job he’s in.”

Says Willie: “We root for each other when something good happens. It’s fun to know the person in the sixth-grade homeroom and see her now being such a great mom to our two kids. It’s a journey that not a lot of people have together, and it’s very special. ... But I know her well enough to know that if there is any moment of ego, there will be a pin in the balloon that is my head.” He laughs.

When asked about Valentine traditions, Willie says: “Well, Christina’s birthday is Feb. 18. So, I usually get away with going extra-big on her birthday. But we go out to dinner.”

“We don’t ignore it,” she says, “but we really try to make each other happy every day.”

Willie says: “The other thing is, all the Valentine’s Day roses are on deep discount on her birthday. So I can get her, like, a hundred roses.”

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