Petaluma Profile: Long-distance romance leads couple to Petaluma
Like some modern interpretation of a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie, Josh Simmons and Chris Neugebauer had a fateful encounter one night in the Pacific Northwest that would lead them to a life lived in airports — and a lot of pie — before landing them both in Petaluma.
In 2014, O'Reilly Media of Sebastopol hosted an international computer conference in Portland. About 4,200 people from all over the world converged for the week-long event. Sonoma County native Simmons, who lived in Santa Rosa at the time, was overwhelmed to say the least. It was just the second conference that he had worked for the company. His job was to help facilitate all the speakers. In the chaos of such a large event, he stumbled upon a “collection of Australians,” he recalled in a recent interview.
Simmons’ answer drew a glance from Neugebauer (one of those Australians — and one of the featured speakers).
“Oh, um Tasmans, actually,” Simmons said with a grin as Pico the black-and-white cat jumped up onto his lap, demanding to be part of the remote, Zoom interview as well. Neugebauer, as Simmons just pointed out, is from Hobart, Tasmania.
“Not Tanzania,” Simmons laughed. Apparently certain spell-checks in the United States are not aware that there is a difference in the two words. Tanzania is in Africa. Tasmania isn’t.
The two became friends at the conference and decided to stay in touch. A year went by, during which they would chat online. Then the next conference rolled around.
“I didn’t notice that Chris was giving me more attention than he was giving others,” Simmons said.
Luckily for him, Neugebauer has no problem speaking his mind, and the two soon discovered that they really enjoyed spending time together as a couple. So despite the 8,000 miles and 10-hour time difference, they decided to give a romantic relationship a shot.
“Traveling was a huge part of our relationship,” Simmons said. “Because our jobs required so much traveling as well, there were a lot of meetings in airports where one was coming and the other was going.”
At some point not long after, Neugebauer was introduced to Pico, an important step in fashioning any kind of blended family.
“Pico wasn’t too sure about me then,” Neugebauer admited, as the cat switched laps to get its full due of love and pampering. “He tolerates me now,” he added, gently petting the obviously won-over cat before continuing. “We realized that to take the relationship further, one of us would have to move.”
Several months later, on yet another trip to Portland, while taking an after-dinner walk, they found themselves on The Steel Bridge, which spans the Willamette River. It was there that the two proposed to each other.
“The proposal was mutual,” Simmons confirmed.
While most people might not think of a large steel truss bridge as romantic — or even particularly lovely — it suited the two just fine.
“It’s multi-modul!” Simmons excitedly said.
It is no surprise that with their love and history of travel, the couple decided to get married somewhere aviation-themed.
“Originally we were looking at hangars,” Neugebauer offered, “But hangars are pretty dirty places.”
“We thought about aviation museums,” Simmons added, “But most don’t have a lot of room for a ceremony.”
They were returning from a disappointing venue-searching trip to the San Carlos Aviation Museum, when they decided to stop by SFO and see if the museum there was any better laid-out for a wedding. It was exactly what they had been looking for.
“I didn’t know that I had a dream wedding location, until we walked in,” Simmons said. It was also ideal for the cosmopolitan couple since guests could literally just fly right in for the ceremony.
“My cousin went to his PHD graduation ceremony the night before in Melbourne,” Neugebauer elaborated, “And then boarded the next flight. He did - barely - miss the ceremony, but made it to the reception.”
“And of course there was pie,” Simmons added.
Neugebauer smiled at the word, confessing that one of the things he loves most about Petaluma is the Petaluma Pie Company.
“Meat pies are a thing in Australia, but not here,” he said. “So to go to a proper pie shop and get a good meat pie...”
Lost in the happy memory, he did not finish the sentence.
“We had them make our pies with little airplanes on them for the wedding,” Simmons added. “It was adorable.”
These days, the two are busy despite the pandemic putting a hold on their traveling. Neugebauer had been organizing the North Bay Python computer programming conference, last held at the Mystic in 2019, and has plans to do it again once it’s safe to do so. In the meantime, he is supporting Simmons efforts with a local political campaign. Simmons has also recently joined the board of Petaluma Pride.
“We’re both addicted to volunteering,” he said with a laugh. Pride is a serious topic for the couple. While Petaluma was the obvious choice for them to start their life together because of its walkability, its small, agricultural town charm, its amazing pies and proximity to one of the worldwide hubs of the tech industry that they both continue to work in, the fact is that had they chosen Neugebauer’s native Tasmania or Australia to live in together, it would have been more difficult to get the family visa they required.
California legalized same-sex marriage in 2013. Simmons and Neugebauer initially met in 2014. They got engaged in 2017. Australia wouldn’t legalize same-sex marriage until 2018.
“It would have been doable,” Neugebauer said. “But it would have taken much longer.”
Neither man identifies as gay, but as bi-sexual, so they refer to themselves as a queer same-sex couple, not a gay couple. Regardless of where their marriage fits into the wider societal changes, there is one thing that is undeniable. The love that these two exhibit for each other would put Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan to shame.
“We just bought this house,” Neugebauer mentioned, moving the camera around to better see their charming home in Petaluma’s west side. “The plants are Josh’s.”
Simmons, it is clear, enjoys plants.
“I’m slowly building an indoor garden,” he said, before adding with a grin, “And trying to talk him into adopting another cat.”
At this, Pico offered his opinion by jumping off their laps.
“We have Pico, who’s 14, and then there’s Astra, who is being shy,” Simmons explained, “But we could absolutely get another.”
“Maybe,” Neugebauer interjected, “we’ll talk about that later.”