Ultimately, she traded literature for law school at UNC. There she met John Edwards, a small-town North Carolinian who had studied textiles as an undergraduate. To a well-traveled young woman accustomed to the world of letters, the quiet millworker's son didn't seem like a romantic prospect. But their first date won her over.
Wearing a bow tie, he picked her up in his red Duster and took her to a dance, complete with disco ball, at a local Holiday Inn. At the end of the night, he kissed her on the forehead. They were inseparable after that. "I would come through the law school library, and I'd always see them sitting at the same table," says classmate Gerry Cohen. "There'd be textbooks spread out, and Elizabeth would be busy taking notes. John would be sitting at the table staring at Elizabeth."
They married three days after the bar exam and worked briefly in Nashville before moving to Raleigh. She began her own practice as he was starting his. Working in commercial litigation, Elizabeth quickly discovered that women attorneys, even sharp ones, received less respect than men. During depositions one day, when her male colleague left the room, an opposing attorney began talking candidly with a witness, not realizing Edwards was a lawyer. "They assumed I was a piece of furniture," she says. She rarely grew angry; instead she turned situations to her own advantage. During a bankruptcy trial, when she learned that a key player was planning to flee, Edwards stood outside the courthouse, making small talk as the man waited for a town car to whisk him to the airport. "I sort of chatted with him the whole time, saying, 'Oh, the buses here are so unreliable,' just yakking away," she says. "I'd been in the courtroom, but he had never thought of me as a lawyer." With her target disarmed by his own sexism, Edwards served him a subpoena and walked off.
After her first children, Wade and Cate, were born, motherhood tugged harder on Edwards than her career did. When both kids were in grade school, she reduced her hours to part-time and parented in overdrive. While other mothers bought Halloween costumes at the store, Edwards stayed up late making hers by hand. She brought Krispy Kreme doughnuts to basketball games, not just for her children's teammates but for the opposing players as well. She counseled Cate's friends about sex and made Wade's repeat every synonym for breast until the words were no longer titillating.
Edwards was particularly tight with Wade, her oldest child, a gifted writer with an affinity for underdogs. "In a lot of ways, they were like soul mates," says Tricia Arnett, an old friend whose daughter grew up with Cate. They bid on sports cards together. They ran together. She read every book he read in high school. One night, battling insomnia, Edwards stayed up late watching Sophie's Choice. She came to the scene where Meryl Streep, as Sophie Zawistowska, is forced to choose between her two children in a Nazi death camp. "I remember going in and crawling into bed with Wade after watching that, just crying and crying," she says. "He was so unbelievably sweet that you knew that he could never live another day if he thought the price of his life was his sister's."
Then, in April 1996, a police cruiser pulled into the family's driveway. That afternoon, Wade had left for the North Carolina coast, where his family was to join him later. Facing the state trooper, Elizabeth spoke first. "Tell me he's alive," she said.