Courtroom 101 at the Flagler County courthouse isn’t known for its joyous occasions. It’s usually a hub of legal wrangles from arraignments to traffic infractions to injunctions.
It’s witnessed its occasionally happy Drug Court graduation, maybe even a deserved acquittal from time to time. But nothing like what took place today between the cadences of a string octet, the redolence of roses and the applause of a gallery full to capacity: the simultaneous weddings of eight couples and the renewal of vows of seven, including that of a couple who’ve been together 48 years–Linda Hansen and her husband Greg, the Flagler County commissioner.
They’d known each other just 30 days when, with just five other people at the ceremony, they married on Feb. 11, 1972, in a Pearl Harbor quonset hut. “I’d come in from Vietnam, it was my two-week R&R,” Greg said. Linda, a Pan Am flight attendant, was on a 30 day break. He’d been deployed on the ground in Vietnam at the time, in river and coastal patrol. They’d met while he was in training. When he left for Vietnam, “he left his motorcycle with me,” Linda said, a BSA 650 Lightning, “so I figured it was serious.”
And it was. As serious as the tears he shed today and the words Linda spoke afterward: “I can honestly say that I love my husband more today than I did the day we were married. If you can make a marriage and a relationship last, and they are not easy, you know that, you have gold.”
There was a judge in the room–County Judge Andrea Totten, one of the newer judges in the Seventh Judicial Circuit–but only as a spectator. The two ceremonies–first the renewals, then the newlyweds–were officiated by Clerk of Court Tom Bexley, who started the Valentine’s Day mass wedding tradition three years ago to jazz up the occasion within the otherwise austere walls of the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center.
The first two years’ ceremonies took place on the courthouse steps. Even today’s ceremony was planned for outside. But the threat of weather more liquid than cupid prompted the improvisation in Room 101, which may well be the way Bexley goes in future years: he liked the warmer intimacy of it, and the fulsome sounds of the Flagler Youth Orchestra’s octet, the wood-paneled room giving it more of a concert-hall feel than how wind, space and traffic noise could diffuse the sounds outside, created just the sort of lush, processional cheer the occasion demanded.
“We talk ourselves out of our usual routines of daily living to witness a unique moment in the lives of each of these couples here today,” Bexley told the assembly. He stood in front of the judge’s bench, at the podium where lawyers or defendants usually do. Except that the podium was buttoned up in a big red bow. “Because you were the ones who supported them and know them so well, it’s only fitting that you’re here today too. To share this once in a lifetime–or twice or third in a lifetime. To the couples, the years will come and go, and they have. Don’t take each other for granted. You will laugh a lot, you will be the best parents you can be, you will grow older and wiser together. Marriage is an amazing journey with no end in sight.” (Thankfully, family court, where marriages end, was on the fourth floor.)
Bexley invited the couples renewing their vows to cross the bar and stand in two rows on their side of the room as he spoke the reaffirming words cresting with the couples’ “I do” and the attestation of a kiss. Some kisses lingered longer than others. “All right,” Bexley said, “we’re waiting for our last couples to finish up, very good, if I could ask you all to take your seats again.”
The octet struck up Mouret’s Rondo, and in walked the eight couples about to marry as cell phones went up in the gallery like candelabras. They lined up as the previous group of couples had, and Bexley asked them if they were doing so “freely, to give yourself in marriage.” (Judges ask defendants the same thing, with “plea” replacing “marriage”). They all said “I do.” They all faced each other. The world around them probably vanished for those moments except for the clerk’s words. “This commitment is made in love, will be kept in faith, lived in hope, and made new every day of your lives,” Bexley told them before more kisses, applause, music and a rush of congratulations. Then it was time for the sugar-rich reception that followed, compliments of the clerk’s office and especially Deputy Clerk Antoinette Hollingsworth, the wedding planner who makes it all click.
“This is one of the biggest days of your lives. And let me tell you. Toni treats this as her own,” Bexley said of Hollingsworth. “She basically takes the entire year, planning, she spent all of yesterday baking, acquiring gifts for all the brides and grooms and we can’t thank her enough for what she does. She’s really taken ownership of this, and you’re my champion. Thank you Toni.”
Donna and Marc Menzie also renewed their vows today after 23 years of marriage, their wedding day dating back to a Best Western in Westminster, Md., where the temperature was breaking a record high and their rabbi had come down with appendicitis at the last moment, leaving them scrambling for a replacement. “We finally found somebody but he couldn’t get there until late in the afternoon like 3 o’clock and all our guests were coming in the morning,” Marc said. “So I told everybody when everybody came in I said there was a slight change of plans. Because of the circumstances, we’re going to eat, drink and be married.”
“Backwards, reverse,” Donna said.
“It was the hottest day on record, the air conditioning broke down inside, the cake started to look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” Marc said. The top fell off. “Somebody trying to tell us something here?” he remembered thinking.
Apparently not. When they went to the Mirage in Vegas for their honeymoon, they had no regular rooms left. They got “the presidential suite or something,” Donna recalls. “No extra charge.”
Their marriage, like the tower, still stands, however it leans. (For the record, Marc and Donna were leaning on each other, verbally when not physically.)
As for Jim and Maria Stewart–who got married 20 years ago in California on Feb. 12–they decided to renew, and were surprised by the extent of the celebration–the reception, the attention to detail, the music. “I figured I’d go to the courtroom but I didn’t know they’d have it fixed so nicely,” Jim said. “The music was excellent, I kind of like that kind of music and I never hear it.”
Just before the ceremonies Beach 92 FM’s Laura Zublionis thanked sponsors who provided gifts such as European Village’s Blooming Flowers and Gifts, which provided what seemed like fields of roses, Don Luigi’s Italian Restaurant, offering a dinner for two, Hand and Stone Massage and Facials free couple’s massage, and the Flagler Auditorium with two tickets for Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. show on March 12.
Thinking back to that day 48 years ago Linda Hansen recalled how the chaplain actually told her after the ceremony: “Now, if this doesn’t work out, in three days call me and I’ll tear up the paperwork.” Greg, she said, thought he was kidding. Whether he was or not of course is a point made moot by the years, and the gold.
Incidentally, it wasn’t the Hansens’ first renewal. They renewed once before, 30 years ago. Since they hadn’t had the church experience in Pearl Harbor, they renewed in a 100-year-old church on Kauai, the Garden Isle, and of course the oldest–or let’s say most enduring–of the Hawaiian archipelago.