Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I Do, I Do, I Do (Ch. 4)

The story of four daughters, three couples,
two parents and one very big wedding

By Thomas Kunkel

Click here for previous chapters:   Ch. 3   Ch. 2   Ch. 1  

 December 2009

Kate: The redheaded one, fiery, stubborn, as smart as you are independent. No Cathy you, but a Kate to do a Shakespeare or a Hepburn proud.
Claire: Not a soupcon of Gallic blood in you and yet somehow you possess an indisputably French sense of style. Beyond that, you have a Frenchwoman’s blithe openness—things are so claire in your mind, if not always in your world.
Helen: A noble name for the warrior beauty that you were from the start, the girl who was hanging upside down on the jungle gym practically before you could walk, the ferocious sweeper whose soccer coach nicknamed you “The Helenator.” But I think we were even closer to the mark in your middle name, Louise, after your Grandmother Kunkel, whom you are all over again. Beyond the physical resemblance, like Grandma you feel very deeply about things, you are feisty, you have no halfway emotions.
And Grace: Just so—serene, sweet, so giving of others. Such a blessing when we least expected it.
Four children, four girls. And all four of you, through happy accident or brilliant parental intuition, well and truly named.
When you think about it, a person’s name is so important that it’s a shame we parents bestow it so quickly and at times so cavalierly. Society would probably be better off if parents just gave newborns bar codes or something until we get at least a clue about their personalities. Instead, we hang a label on them and then they have to go out into a judgmental world and live up to it or live it down.
Not all that long ago, of course, when couples were expecting, they had to come up with two names—one of each flavor. You didn’t know what you had until the kid popped out in the delivery room and you could check the parts list.
No more. By about halfway through the pregnancy it’s now commonplace for parents to know if they’re having a girl or boy. I well remember the afternoon Deb and I were first confronted with this brave new obstetric world. We were living in Miami at the time. Deb had undergone her first ultrasound, and the doctor was looking over the image to check that everything was progressing as planned. Then she turned to us and asked rather matter-of-factly, “Would you like to know if it’s a boy or girl?”
Deb was still lying there on the table, glistening belly up, with me standing next to her. We exchanged a startled look, utterly unprepared for the question. We demurred, said we’d talk about it, which for a few moments we did. And ultimately we decided we didn’t want to know. Tempting as that was, we preferred to be surprised upon delivery—just like the mommies and daddies in the movies.
And so it was a few months later that we were delighted when a healthy baby girl emerged: Welcome to the world, Katherine Rose. I want to tell you, when those wonderful, baby-doting, red-hair-loving Cuban nurses got one look at your coppery peach fuzz, it set off a stir in the maternity ward as if Lucille Ball herself had strolled through. You were definitely a redheaded Kate from the start.
Just a year and a half later we were going through the same drill, same city, same doctor. She performed the ultrasound and again asked if we wanted to know the baby’s sex. This time we adopted a more blasé attitude. We said, sure, tell us. “It’s a girl!” she said. I don’t even recall if we were ready to name you yet, but soon enough we had decided that you would be Claire Alise. Not for any real reason except that we just liked the names—and finding names that work with the inelegant-sounding “Kunkel” is not easy, let me tell you.
By our third go-around, we had recently moved to Columbus, Georgia, where Knight-Ridder, in a weak moment, had given me the opportunity to run its newspaper there. The doctor asked if we wanted to know the baby’s sex. We thought it would be nice to be surprised again, and when you were born we were—with another girl: Helen Louise, who was in such a hurry that Deb barely made it to the delivery room.
For our fourth, we were in Phoenix, Arizona, where I was editor and publisher of a monthly magazine. This time when Deb underwent the sonogram and the doctor asked us if we wanted to know, we said in unison, “We know!” We didn’t need high-tech imagery to tell us what by then was perfectly obvious: We produce girls! We had long since stopped consulting the male side of the names book.
Grace Regina was six weeks premature, and Deb had to stay in bed and take special drugs to hold her off that long. But when Grace decided it was time for her debut anyway, those same “stalling” drugs made it a kind of slow-motion labor. We watched the clock for what seemed an eternity until it slid past the midnight hour…and into Valentine’s Day, which we took to be a happy omen despite the baby’s early arrival. At not quite five pounds, Grace seemed tiny to her worried parents, but she dwarfed the other preemies in that ward, some of whom would have nestled comfortably in my hand. One week later she was home, and the band was complete.

A little more fatherly rumination, if I’m permitted, on the brides-to-be, and a few thoughts too about their young men. (For those of you who may be concerned that Grace is being ignored in all this folderol, not to worry. I will circle back to the “maid of honor cubed” next time.)
            Katie is what Scarlett O’Hara would have been if she had been born in 1983 instead of 1845. Smart, shrewd, stubborn, goal-driven—a combination of qualities that produced a young woman who sees hurdles as challenges, not barriers. Like Miss Scarlett, Katie is pure focus when she wants to be and pure fiddle-dee-dee when she doesn’t. (After 12 years in the same neighborhood, I’m still not entirely sure Katie knows the way to the nearest multiplex, since she usually isn’t driving and therefore pays no attention. She would worry about that, well, tomorrow.)
She has a quick smile and a great laugh, both of which she lavishes on her many friends. She is caring and passionate.
I used to tell Katie when she was small that she was destined to be a lawyer, in that she had an intellectually combative nature—she could see all sides of an issue and argue any one of them for sport. For years she reflexively scoffed at the very idea of becoming an attorney. Then one day in her junior year of college at Maryland, where she was pursuing a double major in psychology and criminology, she rather sheepishly answered one of my period queries about what she might be intending with her life. Well, she said, I’m sort of thinking about …law school.
She chose George Mason because she was intrigued by its economics focus, but also because, politically, it was more conservative than she was by nature and she relished the challenge of that. A less attractive challenge posed by GMU, situated in suburban Virginia, is that you basically can’t get there from suburban Maryland. Her daily commute was a veritable trains, planes (okay, buses) and automobiles ordeal. But she prevailed the same way she always has, via sheer persistence.
The final challenge of going to law school in Virginia is that it doesn’t especially prepare one for Maryland’s Bar exam. So Katie had to spend several more months cramming for the test. That seeming Noreaster you may have felt in early November was actually a wave of relief spreading from Washington to De Pere when she learned she had passed.
One last observation about Katie. For a young lady who’d spent her teen dating career treating young men as the annoying amusements they tend to be, it’s been amazing to watch her go head-over-heels this past two years over Nick. But they do make a compelling couple. He is a generous and funny young man. He is analytical. And he is every bit as determined as she is, maybe more so—though where her passion is hot, his is cool. They know this because they debate issues endlessly, as only idealistic and energetic twentysomethings can. As mentioned earlier, Nick already is thinking seriously about public service, and perhaps politics. Such an outcome wouldn’t surprise me a bit, and in fact we will all be rather better off if he walks that path.
Now to Claire. She is our worrier. People have always relied on Claire because they know she has a highly developed sense of responsibility and order. But by the time she’d reached the upper levels of high school, sometimes other kids could push that reliance to the point of taking advantage. As Claire began to realize what was what, she figured out how to stand up for herself. The result is a young woman who has retained her strong maternal sense but can’t be pushed around—not a bad combination for a high school teacher, come to think of it.
            One of the things about Claire I’m proudest of is that as a girl she was quite shy and then had to operate in the shadow of her older sister, whose excellent grades and outgoing personality made her a favorite of teachers and peers. But Claire worked hard to establish her own personality, and her self-constructed sense of confidence made her a favorite of others, too. For instance, though not especially venturesome as a child, she was the first of our girls to travel abroad on her own. She also quite determinedly learned strong study habits and thus made herself an excellent student.
Along the way she became a setter of goals. Lots of people—even dads—set goals, of course, but Claire actually goes about meeting them. She decided a decade ago that she was going to be a teacher, and that is precisely what she set out to do, and that is what she did. With an undergraduate degree in history and a master’s degree in education, “Ms. Kunkel” (as her kids call her) is now in her third year as a high school teacher in Montgomery County’s renowned school system.
And there’s no stopping her, because as she knows better than anyone, if you can command a room of high school juniors, you can do anything. That includes buying your own home when you’re just 24, which Claire did earlier this year. It was a huge declaration of independence, but she was ready. More to the point, she knew she was ready.
            Claire and Sam also represent a fine match, albeit one they themselves will tell you sometimes sets off sparks. Over the years Claire developed the habit of surfacing whatever issue happens to be bothering her at the moment. Sam, meanwhile, having grown up back in Indiana, is much more like me, which is to say he has that deep Germanic quality of holding in concerns and irritations and just letting them brew. This dichotomy means they’ve knocked heads from time to time, but in point of fact it’s also been good for them; they are learning from one another—to be more open, yes, but to reciprocate with more patience.
            As a college student Sam lost his father to a heart attack no one saw coming. He thus literally became the man of the family, and he is devoted to his mother and younger sister. Life has lent him a real strength, tempered by a sweet vulnerability. He is maybe the most earnest person I know, in the very best sense. Indeed, Sam’s current work—helping researchers and doctors figure out the underlying causes of emotional and mental illness—is an extension of his genuine desire to help people. That too is a quality he and Claire have in common, albeit one they are pursuing in different professions.
            Then there is Helen. Such a wonderful paradox: Easily the most physically strong and athletic of the girls but also easily the most sensitive. For instance, her soccer tackles, while always clean (they were, weren’t they, Helen?), could be as violent as the slides you see in the World Cup competition. Yet her emotions work on a near hair-trigger.
            We could see all this coming from the beginning. Katie and Claire had given Deb and me little direct appreciation of the “terrible two’s.” Then Helen came along and made up for all three of them at once—so headstrong, so contrary, so creative in her defiance. (For a while we thought her face might just permanently freeze scrunched up like Popeye’s.) She was the only one of the four who ever pulled over a Christmas tree, the only one we had to call Poison Control about—and not once but three times! I don’t know which was a larger miracle, that Helen survived those early years or that we did. But when she did emerge, she had retained the stubbornness but acquired a charm that Deb and I took to be our reward for sticking with her.   
What caught us off guard, though, was the artistic ability. One morning, when Helen was perhaps in her sophomore year in high school, one of the girls walked into our bedroom and casually showed Deb and me a remarkable pencil sketch. It was a collective portrait of all four of the girls, each at the age of three or four. Each of the renderings was spot-on accurate. But where on earth had this come from? “Helen did it,” Grace said.
            Her high school art teacher confirmed for us that Helen was in fact precociously talented. In no time we came to see that in addition to her sketching ability, Helen was an excellent painter who had unusually sophisticated notions of theme and composition. When it came time for college, Helen seriously considered attending the respected Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, to which she’d been accepted. But she was keen about architecture too, and that was the major she chose in going to the University of Maryland instead. And while she enjoyed that study, it only validated her original passion for art. So in the end she made that her major, with a specialization in graphic design.
As the most creative and sensitive one of the brides, it was hardly surprising that Helen had been planning a more elaborate wedding than her sisters before they decided on the “triple.” As such, they are absolutely delighted to let her be the chief planner for the brides’ team, and she is in almost daily contact with her collaborator back here in Wisconsin, her mother.
            When Helen was a junior in high school, she happened to stumble across a television program that documented the little human dramas that play out every day at Baltimore’s airport. This particular episode featured a handsome, slender young man from Southern California who was leaving home for an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. The show also featured his mother, who was making the emotional trip across country with him. Helen remembers being moved by their obvious love for one another, as well as the young man’s mature sense of commitment to duty and country.
            Fast-forward six months or so. Helen is visiting her friend Kat, whose brother was also a plebe, who introduced her to a classmate…whom Helen found strangely familiar though she had never met him. Then suddenly it dawned on her: this Mike Lindsey was the same young man she’d seen on television! Within days she had invited Mike to her spring prom, and they never looked back. Helen would come to appreciate that in addition to her initial instincts about Mike’s sensitivity and maturity, he is also highly intelligent, polite and funny. (Not to mention an excellent golfer who routinely outdrives his future father-in-law by about 75 yards.)
            The past year has been difficult for the two of them, as Mike has undertaken flight training in Texas and Florida (he will specialize in piloting helicopters) while Helen finishes her education at Maryland. The lengthy separations doubtless have prepared them both for the uniquely challenging life of a Navy couple. That doesn’t make them any easier to endure.

            But enough from me about the kids. What do they say about one another? I asked each of the couples this question: What makes your fiancé “the one”? Here’s what they had to say.

Mike on Helen:
            “Helen is the one for me because she makes me laugh more than anyone, she loves me for me, and from the very beginning she understood what was in store for us with the whole military lifestyle and expressed to me very clearly that she was in this relationship for the long haul. 
            “Not very many 18- or 19-year-old girls have that same conviction as Helen had, and I found that very special. She is my best friend and I knew she was the one for me very early in our relationship.”

Helen on Mike:
“He is my superhero. He never fails to step up and help me.
            “He’s got the best smile. I mean, he was Mr. Santa Barbara when he was a baby (I believe that’s the correct title although he may not want that in the blog!). Also, it’s contagious. It doesn’t matter how mad I am at him, if he smiles I smile right back.
            “He says I am everything to him and doesn’t hesitate to show it. He makes me laugh all the time. He's a gentleman who still opens doors for me and lets me wear his hooded sweatshirt when it’s cold and pouring outside and I don’t have an umbrella.
            “He is my best friend. He understands me and I can talk to him about anything.”

Sam on Claire:
            “For me, Claire has always been my center, a rock, a steady presence in my life. I met her when life was not going so great for me. My dad had just passed, graduation was coming up and I did not know 100 percent what I was going to do. I was feeling not completely whole. She has just always been there, never letting me go for a second. There has always been a call, a text, an e-mail, or in a couple cases a surprise visit from her while I was still at college.
            “What I love and respect about Claire the most is that she is completely honest, up-front—confrontational when need be—and will always give her heart out to what she believes in. She is a chance-taker, a calculated risk-taker, and plain and simple, she’s willing to let go and let God. We have had our ups and downs, and our share of disagreements and not playing nice. No matter what, I will and want to always be with her and love her at the end of every day. Like I said, she is my center, my home.”

Claire on Sam:
“Sam rocks because he embodies all I love about the Midwest—people who really care and will help out with anything. He is such a great friend, willing to go on any trip I dream up, and even take the dog along for the ride. He keeps me active and happy, always wanting to try new restaurants and go out with friends. I love that he treats my sisters well, because they are very important to me and I could never marry someone who did not get along with them. 
“I know Sam will be a great husband and will always stand beside me. Things started out tough but we have been through so much already, with a hectic long-distance relationship, we both feel blessed to see our dreams come true!”

Nick on Katie:
“I’m not sure how to explain the simultaneous feeling of excitement and rest that I get upon returning from school or work and seeing Katie.
“In any event, I love Katie because she’s got an old soul. She likes how Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin can take you back to a simpler time. I love that although she’s a strong-willed and independent woman, she still likes to be swept off her feet. 
“She’s a passionate debater, blessed with an inherent ability to see through the clutter and get to the heart of an issue quickly. Whether it’s health care, financial systems or trade regulation, nothing’s too complex for her. I’ve never seen it before. In short, I love Katie because knowledge excites her.
“People—friends and strangers alike—gravitate toward her, and it’s obvious why. She’s warmhearted and welcoming, but also filled with energy and life. But for all those aforementioned attributes—for all of her beauty, her style, her zest for life—there’s one thing I keep coming back to: she’s my best friend, the person with whom I want to share everything. I think that, together, we’re better people. Life’s not just more exciting with her, it’s also more meaningful.”

Katie on Nick:
“I had a crush on Nick from the first time I met him in college. I didn't think he returned my feelings. It didn’t even matter to me because we became such close friends. We were two peas in a pod. He is silly, funny, loving and sensitive. He has always been passionate about me. After I broke up with an ex-boyfriend freshman year, Nick wrote me a song to make me feel better. It was called the ‘Katie Kunkel Sizzong.’ He played it on his guitar and sang it in his John Mayer voice that I hate. He sang that ‘to know me is to love me.’ It was so sweet. We found that song about a year ago and had a good laugh.
“Nick loves to learn new things as much as I do. Even if we agreed on 99 percent of topics, we'd still find an area where we disagree and debate it until we are both exhausted. I can tell that I’m the most important thing to him just like he is to me. I’m really excited to marry my best friend.” 
NEXT: The “Mother of All Maids of Honor.”
Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I Do, I Do, I Do (Ch. 3)

The story of four daughters, three couples,
two parents and one very big wedding

By Thomas Kunkel

Click here for previous chapters:   Ch. 2   Ch. 1

November 2009

A year or two ago at a party with some couples our age, the conversation turned to whether it is still customary for a smitten young man to ask his true love’s father for her hand in marriage. I hadn’t thought about it, frankly, but said I assumed young men did not, that that custom seemed about as quaint and outdated as donning one’s best wool coat, tie and plus-fours to play a round of golf.
Or maybe like any good journalist I was simply considering my personal experience—in other words, a sample size of one—and projecting it as representative of the culture at large. But I should have known better than that, if for no other reason than there was nothing whatsoever typical about the run-up to my own marriage.
For starters, Deb and I have known one another since we were five years old. That’s because that’s how old we were when her family moved in next door to mine on Virginia Street in Evansville, Indiana. We began dating at age 15, started talking about getting married around 17, and proceeded to “wait” to get married until we were 20. Looking back, it all seems such a natural and logical process, moving inevitably from our daily visits on her backdoor stoop to the high school prom to the church altar, that we never really had the “will you marry me” moment, exactly. We just understood that we would marry, as soon as the calendar caught up with our conviction.
And certainly I never asked her father, Virgil Niehaus, whether I could have her hand, or any other part of her, for that matter. Virgil was a good man—tragically, he died of a massive heart attack two decades ago at age 59—but he could be more than a little intimidating, at least to the neighbor kid. Maybe I didn’t ask him if Deb could marry me because I didn’t know what I would do if he said no!
In any event, my assumptions would soon be disproven in the matter of contemporary young men and their fathers-in-law-to-be.


The first clue came in April. Katie was about to graduate from George Mason’s law school after three stressful albeit successful years, and we were all heading back East in mid-May to attend the commencement and celebrate with her.
Several weeks beforehand, I got an email from Mike, Helen’s boyfriend. I didn’t save the email, but Mike essentially said, “I know it’s going to be a busy couple of days, but I hope we can find a little time because I need to talk with you about something very important.”
Now, I may not be the sharpest toothpick in the box, but I had a good idea what he had in mind. Deb and I felt Mike and Helen would wind up together from their first chance meeting. I replied, “Mike, of course I’m happy to talk to you about anything—except Helen.” I’m pretty sure I added a smiley icon at the end of that so he knew I was teasing him. (Or maybe not.)
Then I yelled to Deb in the next room, well, brace yourself, it looks like our first engagement is in the offing.
Just a week later, then, another email arrived. This one was from Nick, Katie’s beau. He wrote to the effect that, I know Mike has asked to see you while you’re in town and I know you’re going to be pressed for time, but I also need to talk to you about something important.
I wrote back that I was certain we could find time for that conversation. Deb by now was just this side of giddy, with another domino about to drop. “This trip is getting busy,” I said. “One more and it will officially be a trend.”
I met first with Nick, over lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in downtown Washington, and then the following morning Mike and I talked before breakfast out on the porch of the house. I have warm and comfortable relationships with them, but both were still a little nervous as they prepared to convey to me their carefully practiced professions. Mind you, neither asked my “permission” to marry—that concept, thankfully, really did go out with plus-fours—but they sincerely wished that Deb and I bless their intentions. (Of course, it was nicely old-school, I thought, that they wanted to have this conversation with the father alone, which made me feel not a little smug.) In different ways and with different words, but with precisely the same sweet earnestness, both told me how much they loved the girls, how they would care for them always, and how they wanted to live the rest of their lives with them. It was as moving as I imagined it would be, just what a dad would want to hear from prospective husbands.
But a little unsettling, too, I have to say. After all, until this point as a parent, the young ladies under discussion have always and forever been your “girls”: the four of them frozen in your mind’s eye, say, in that 1991 Christmas card photo you took with the cheerleader motif, holding up signs proclaiming that they are ages two, four, six, eight. Now you’re listening to strapping young men describe them as the kind of alluring young women who make them feel complete, excited, fulfilled. Does a dad really want to hear that? Yet your dismay evaporates instantly the moment you realize that they are articulating precisely the same feelings you had all those years ago for the freckle-faced strawberry blonde next door. Yours was a love nothing could keep apart, and so is theirs. And unlike you, they had the courage to go to their prospective father-in-law and say as much.
So it was now official, if still a secret: 50 percent of our daughters were about to be engaged. Beyond that, it was looking like there might well be two weddings in the summer of 2010. And those would likely be in two different locales….  Oy! Scenes of Steve Martin in Father of the Bride began playing in my head.
Now, at this point we didn’t really know what Sam and Claire had in mind—if they knew themselves. True, we had a sense they too were moving toward marriage, but much remained up in the air with them, including Sam’s possible pursuit of medical school. He and Claire were still sorting out all that. They had talked seriously of marriage, we knew, but nothing seemed imminent.
Then on a Sunday evening, Sam called and asked to talk to Deb and me together. Over the scratchy speakerphone connection he told us he loved Claire very much, more than anything, and wanted to marry her. He said he intended to ask her very shortly, but first he wanted us to know his intention, and he wanted our blessing. We conferred it enthusiastically.
And there it was: Three engagements, all converging like arcing fireworks in the summer sky. Deb and I just sort of shook our heads at what was happening, shell-shocked but elated. And truly touched that all three young men had sought our approval beforehand. They hadn’t needed it, but they wanted it. This merely reinforced the strong belief we already had about the fundamental decency and considerate quality of all our prospective sons-in-law. Besides that, the boys had chosen well—and so had the girls.


Looking back, the most remarkable part of the multiple engagements for me is that in every case, so many people knew ahead of time how the proposal was supposed to play out—the groom, the groom’s parents and families, Deb, me, and most incredibly, all the other Kunkel girls—in other words, everyone but the girlfriend involved. And she knew all about the plans of her two sisters. God love us, but we are not exactly a family known for its CIA-like ability to keep secrets from one another. Yet in every case, the surprise held.
The first engagement came courtesy of the fella who had been planning it the longest. Mike was determined to make the occasion something Helen would never see coming and could never forget. He succeeded.
            It was early on the morning of Saturday, July 18. After a long day of travel, Helen and Mike had arrived in Lake Tahoe late the night before. They’d flown in to attend the wedding of Mike’s cousin later that day.
Mike informed Helen he would be awakening her soon because he had a surprise—not exactly what she wanted to hear as she went to bed, exhausted, at 1 a.m.
A few hours later he rousted her, and they drove a while to a marina, arriving around 5. It was still dark, but Helen could dimly make out a man in a red jacket—which had a picture of a hot-air balloon on it! She was thrilled by this realization; riding in a balloon was something she’d always wanted to do, which Mike well knew because she had dropped this hint to him maybe three thousand times. With a little research, Mike had found a company that lifts the balloons right from the middle of Lake Tahoe.
With the other riders they headed out on the large launching boat. The morning sky was beginning to brighten. When they stopped, the crew began to inflate the balloon on the upper deck of the boat, and the captain asked for “helpers.” Mike and Helen went up to take a closer look as the envelope rose. Then a crew member asked if they would like to walk around inside—just to snap a quick picture or two, Helen thought. Mike gave the guy his camera to take a shot of the two of them inside the balloon.
Mike’s plan was unfolding beautifully. There was just one problem: Helen was becoming visibly anxious. As the big, loud fans blew air into their faces, she suddenly had the faintly creepy feeling that the balloon might just stand up while they were still inside. She started to head back toward the opening, but Mike grabbed her arm and pulled her back. That’s odd, she thought. Then he told her he loved her, which she also thought was odd—not that he loved her, of course, but that he was professing the fact while she was trying to escape the envelope of an inflating balloon.
 “Helen, I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” Mike told her. Increasingly anxious and a bit flummoxed—not to mention seriously sleep-deprived—Helen still didn’t quite grasp what was happening. “Why are you telling me you love me now—we need to get out of the balloon!” she said.
Finally Mike pulled out a small box, revealed the ring, got down on one knee and proposed. The crew member—the balloon company having been in on Mike’s plan from the start—snapped the picture as Helen put her hands over her mouth in shock, mumbled an “of course” and started to cry. Then she started in with her patented hand-flippering, as she was borderline hyperventilating from a combination of happiness and relief.


From the time Claire and Sam first got to know one another, one of the things they have both loved most is being outdoors together. They hadn’t been dating for long when they took an extended trip together to see many of the postcard destination spots of the American West. Both love to hike and explore, and Claire especially enjoys photographing the natural beauty of the land.
Hardly surprising, then, that one of their favorite places is scenic Shenandoah National Park, just west of where they live in metropolitan Washington, D.C. “She has told me several times, Shenandoah is pretty much her favorite spot anywhere imaginable,” Sam says. “Next to the Eiffel Tower, it was the most perfect place for both her and me.”
So that’s where Sam planned to pop the question. This was Saturday, August 1.
The three amigos—Sam, Claire and Claire’s other constant companion, her yellow Lab named Chase (better known family-wide as “Chasie Baby”)—were hiking up a tree-laden canyon that offered one of the most popular and expansive vistas of the river valley below. This was the spot Sam had in mind as they set out that morning.
Even for midsummer, though, it was unusually hot. On top of that, Claire wasn’t feeling one-hundred percent, and Chase was being even more curious than usual about his trailside discoveries. That meant that Claire was more or less pulling him up the canyon, which in the heat exhausted her. By lunchtime they had only gotten about halfway up the trail toward Sam’s intended destination.
So he improvised. They took a lunch break on a large boulder that helped form a dam blocking the canyon creek. It was a picturesque spot, with a pleasant view down the canyon and a lovely blend of shade, sunlight and burbling water. They ate lunch, then lingered a while, taking photos of Chase as he cavorted around the creek beneath them.
At that point, with Claire preoccupied with Chase, Sam slipped over to their knapsack and pulled a ring box out of a pair of socks he’d put in there (clean socks, he emphasized later in recounting the event).
He casually returned to Claire on the middle of the rock. He got down on one knee and then asked her to marry him.
So what happened? “No screeches of joy,” Sam recalls, “no tears, just lots of smiles, many hugs, a couple kisses, and lots of ‘I love you’s.’ ”
            They snapped a few photos as best they could, with no one else around, to record the moment. “Of course I was not looking my finest because I had hiked three miles before that point,” Claire says. “But I didn't care. I just wanted to be engaged to Sam.”


To celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary, Nick’s parents, Chuck and Marcia Stewart, were heading to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands with their entire family. Katie, having been more or less adopted by the Stewarts some time ago, would be going along on this early August tropical idyll, to celebrate both the Stewarts’ anniversary and her own survival of the Maryland Bar exam, which she had just taken after two solid months of cramming.
Nick decided this confluence of symbolism and opportunity was too good to pass up. The trip would be perfect for his proposal to Katie. But getting things just right so that his inherently suspicious girlfriend would be completely surprised was rather involved.
On Monday, August 3, a few days after they had arrived on the small island, the group decided on dinner at a nice restaurant. This was actually Nick’s pretext for Katie to wear something dressier than the beach gear she’d worn thus far on the island. She noticed the men—Nick, his dad, and Nick’s brother-in-law, Mike Haaf—were suddenly cleanly shaven. And Nick’s sister, Kate, was wearing makeup, so Katie went back to put some on. When she came back down, her hair was still wet. Chuck tugged at it and joked, “You gonna do something with this?” Katie recalls that “I knew he was kidding, but for some reason that actually prompted me to go upstairs and blow dry my hair.  Thank goodness he did that.”
Dinner passed pleasantly. Katie, in a Jimmy Buffett frame of mind, was ordering island drinks, but to ensure she kept her wits about her Nick playfully passed them around the table to the others.
When the meal was finished Nick asked Katie to take a stroll. The other family members headed back to their rooms—or so Katie thought. In reality, they were busily taking up their prearranged positions.
In the dying sunlight, Nick and Katie climbed until they reached a spectacular overlook on what is known as Peace Hill, for a panoramic view of what Nick called the “impossibly blue water and white sand” below. There were brick ruins of a windmill, and Katie wanted to have a closer look, but Nick intercepted her. He’d carefully scouted an exact location—not just for its beauty, but because his sister, Kate, was hiding in the nearby foliage to capture the big moment in pictures. And that moment had arrived.
Nick: “I was nervous. I kept fumbling for the lines I had practiced all day. I tried to keep it simple—three short sentences that I hoped I could utter before emotion washed my words away. ‘Katie Kunkel, you’re my best friend. You’re the only person I’ve ever loved. Will you be my wife?’ ” 
Katie: “I just started crying and then noticed Kate taking pictures. I was crying/laughing, and Nick pointed out I hadn't said yes yet. I said yes, and his family emerged from the woods.  It's a good thing I had some island drink, or I probably would have noticed them—Mike was wearing a red shirt!”
A few more laughs, a few more pictures, and the entire family headed back down the hill to open a bottle of champagne.


Deb has just read this over and reminded me that I didn’t say anything about the engagement rings. That’s true. It’s not that I forgot, exactly. The girls of course showed me their rings, probably three different times. Like most men—again, I generalize, but prove to me I’m wrong—I paid about as much attention to them as I do to other people’s vacation pictures.
She thus enlightens me:
            Helen’s ring is platinum, with a diamond solitaire set on a band of smaller diamonds.
Claire’s is white and yellow gold, with a ruby solitaire surrounded by diamonds.
Katie’s is an eternity ring, yellow gold with inset diamonds around the entire band.
It seems to me that picking engagement rings takes a certain amount of courage on a young man’s part. Young ladies in love have certain notions of what their engagement rings will look like, and if their beaux miss the mark, well…. Of course, knowing my girls, hints as to the rings doubtless got dropped like so many breadcrumbs along the path to betrothal. Still, there’s not a lot of room for error for the anxious ring-picker. On top of that, there can be logistical problems. Said Nick, “It took three tries to get Katie’s ring right. The first one was too small (note: I didn’t think to ask him how he knew that), and the second one, with which I proposed, was too large. As if asking your girlfriend to marry you wasn’t stressful enough.…” Indeed.
            The girls’ mother, incidentally, never had an engagement ring—I asked, but she didn’t want one. All she wanted was her wedding ring. And that is yellow gold, with white gold for the setting of four small round diamonds and two marquis-shaped sapphires. Sapphires are placed after the first diamond and before the fourth diamond. I know this because I just asked her.
My wedding ring, thank you for inquiring, was a simple gold band highlighted by rose-gold edging. Deb thoughtfully had our wedding date inscribed inside the ring because she anticipated, correctly, that I might need help the first few years recalling it. I employ the past tense in referencing my ring, alas, because for the past 25 years it has resided on the muddy, deep bottom of Lake Patoka in Southern Indiana, the victim of a wearer who had recently lost some weight and then went out for an afternoon of water skiing not having skied for years. When he climbed back into the boat after five or six violent encounters with the surface of the water, he realized the ring was gone, snatched by a jealous Neptune.
In case you’re wondering, Deb was not amused. But that is a story for another day.

NEXT: The Couples.

Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I Do I Do I Do (Ch. 2)

The story of four daughters, three couples,
two parents and one very big wedding

By Thomas Kunkel

Click here for Chapter 1

October 2009

People tell me I have a gift for stating the obvious, so let me say right off: Triple weddings are not particularly common events.
Some time spent on the Web bears out this impression. Oh, you do come across occasional triple weddings, but most of them involve couples who are friends, not siblings. And a number of these are essentially stunts, like the three couples who got married together riding a Six Flags roller coaster. Maybe an apt metaphor for marriage, I guess, but not especially romantic.
I did find a Florida wedding that involved three sisters. That happened in 2003, and the novelty of it intrigued “Good Morning America” host Diane Sawyer enough that she invited the three couples onto the program to talk about it.
Yet another triple wedding with siblings—a brother and two sisters—made headlines back in 1991, but for the wrong reasons. This occurred in L.A. Newspaper reports indicated that a local gang, upset at not having been allowed into the reception, drove by the wedding party and opened fire with automatic weapons, killing one person and wounding several others.
Fortunately, I found a much happier triple wedding in the New York Times—the New York Times from 1882, that is! In truth, the Times had reprinted an account of this remarkable wedding from the Cincinnati Gazette. It told the tale of three sisters who were married on the family’s country estate along the Licking River about 20 miles south of Cincinnati. There, on November 15, 1882, the three tall, fair daughters of Squire Albert Phillips—the wonderfully named Celia, Hettie and Lucie—wed three young men from the neighboring area.
The Squire, a Civil War veteran from Ohio, owned some 800 acres of Northern Kentucky rolling hills and fields. It was a fittingly grand setting for what was clearly a festive affair, as the Gazette recounted in the florid language of that age. “One wedding in Kentucky is occasion for excess of gayety,” our enthusiastic correspondent noted. “But when a triad of maidens” is involved, he continued, “it is sufficient excuse for a triple measure of hilarity, and an occasion to be remembered for a life-time.” Without doubt!
The occasion was especially poignant because the Squire had been in unsteady health for a year and in fact for more than a month had been confined to his bed. The Phillips girls had suggested postponing the wedding, but the Squire would have none of it. “You have chosen, and chosen wisely,” he told his daughters. “I will have all my friends and neighbors about me, and give you, with my blessing, to the men of your choice.”
So it was arranged that the wedding couples took their vows on the broad porch just outside their father’s bedroom, with the floor-to-ceiling windows flung open so he could see everything as he sat up in bed like a bluegrass pasha. After the vows were exchanged, all the guests came inside from the crisp fall day for a feast featuring all the foods and hospitality one might expect of a landed gentleman who had just taken in the harvest. There were three long tables decorated with autumnal colors, one couple at the head of each. And each couple had their own wedding cake.
I particularly loved the image of the father taking all this in from the comfort of his bed. I, on the other hand, already look to be a considerably more active participant in my daughters’ triple wedding. And no one, alas, has ever called me Squire.


People are getting quite excited as they learn of the Kunkel Girls’ wedding. After the initial reaction, be it surprise or wonderment or delight or often all of the above, their questions turn immediately to logistics. Have you started reserving hotel rooms? (Yes, plenty of them.) How are they handling the wedding cake/s? (Don’t know yet.) How is Dad going to walk all three of them down the aisle? (Not sure, we’re working on it.)
Finally, they want to know—this is Green Bay, after all—is that a Packer home weekend? (We don’t know that yet, either; the NFL won’t release its schedule until next spring, and the league probably doesn’t care about triple weddings anyway.)
The questions serve as a reminder that once you get past the notion of a triple wedding, as improbable and romantic as it seems, the reality of a triple wedding quickly sets in. And the reality is that a triple wedding is basically a very long list of logistics and details—the same list you confront with a “regular” wedding, albeit on steroids. From this early vantage point, the affair seems to have taken on the feel of a military campaign—Sherman marching through Georgia, with a little less burning and pillaging and a lot more tulle. (I just wanted to use the word “tulle;” I have no idea what it is. Indeed, no dad I know does.)
Thus, the girls’ planning got under way in earnest just as soon as it was decided it would be a “triple.”
As it happened, not long after their engagements, all four daughters were in De Pere to spend a few days. Their visit had long been planned, but under the circumstances it turned from a purely social affair into a rather intense recon mission.
The first order of business was the church. Where would this mega-wedding actually take place?
As I mentioned last time, I left the University of Maryland in the summer of 2008 to become just the seventh president in the 111-year history of St. Norbert College. St. Norbert is a private, Catholic, liberal arts institution with about 2,100 students, all but about 100 of them undergraduates. It is a fine and accomplished college, and the only one in the world founded by our patrons, the Norbertine order of Catholic priests. The Norbertines are more formally the Premonstratensian Fathers, an order founded 875 years ago in Prémontré, France by St. Norbert of Xanten, a bishop and early Church reformer.
The Norbertines were for centuries a dominant order in Europe, but they are less well known in America, where they have just three abbeys (one here in De Pere) and several priories. The Norbertine priests and brothers live in community, but they are not monastic. They work out in the world in all sorts of jobs. Indeed, their three charisms are community, service to others and reflection—and those remain key values of their namesake college.
Our campus church is called Old St. Joseph—or as we all call it, Old St. Joe’s. It is situated on a pleasant bluff along the west side of the Fox River, which forms the edge of our campus. A church or chapel has been on that site since the late 17th century, the current brick building since 1890. It isn’t 50 yards from the place where the nascent college’s Main Hall would be built just a few years later.
Now Old St. Joe’s belongs to the college and it does double-duty as our chapel and a parish of the Green Bay diocese—the first college parish so designated in the United States. To formally belong to the parish, one is supposed to have some official connection to St. Norbert College. But hundreds of other people regularly attend Mass there, drawn by the convivial atmosphere, the energy of the students, and the sheer allure of the church building itself.
Old St. Joe’s true beauty actually was revealed, almost literally by accident, during a renovation in the late 1990s. Workers needed to check on the condition of the original walls long hidden beneath a plaster finish. When they removed a large patch of the plaster, they found that the underlying brick was beautiful, not the usual harsh red color but a subtle and light mottling of terra cotta shades. They took off more plaster and were amazed at the effect. Thus it was decided to remove all the plaster, and so now the church interior is exposed brick from floor to ceiling. Light comes in through tall, spired windows. And high overheard are elegant, scissors-like wooden trusses tied with black iron X-braces. The story I heard is that Old St. Joe’s once had a boat-builder for a neighbor, and logically enough he was hired to craft the trusses. Hence, it takes little imagine to look at them and see the church as a kind of inverted ark.  
 The other striking aspect of Old St. Joe’s architecture is its internal orientation. The original, conventionally arrayed pews have been removed, and in their place the church installed rows of simple, rush-seated chairs that parallel the main aisle, like the bleachers on either side of a basketball court.
The overall effect is of a sacred space that uniquely combines the warmth of the ancient with the freshness of the new.
A perfect ambience, in other words, for a triple wedding. But the girls’ big question was more pragmatic: Could it hold enough people? With three additional families and three more sets of friends coming, this triple wedding would have many more guests than any of them would have expected for an individual event. Fortunately, as they checked out the space with their mom and Fr. Sal Cuccia, a Norbertine who serves as associate pastor, the girls learned that Old St. Joe’s can seat about 425 people and still leave room for three bridal couples and enough bridesmaids and groomsmen to start a volleyball game.
They quickly agreed: Old St. Joe’s would be ideal. And I won’t deny that I was thrilled by this outcome. It would be wonderful in countless ways to have this special family occasion occur on my campus. And having lived through two Wisconsin falls now, I can already envision the kind of day we might well get next October 9, when in a bluer-than-blue sky the low afternoon sun backlights the shimmering yellows, oranges and reds of the campus foliage. But just for insurance, I’m going to see if the Norbertines will start praying on that right away.
Now that we had a venue, who would be the presider? Or I should say presiders, plural. Because the couples decided right off that for a triple wedding it would be fitting to have three celebrants. This would ensure that each couple would have their “own” priest, which in turn would help create that “specialness” within the larger ceremony that we had talked about before. And also, frankly, it would lend additional grandeur to an event that wanted to be larger than the run-of-the-mill ceremony.
Presiding with Katie and Nick will be Fr. Jay Fostner, like Sal a Norbertine who is vice president for Mission and Heritage for St. Norbert College, and thus a member of the president’s Cabinet. Jay is a great young priest whose formal education is in clinical psychology, and he has an easy, practiced rapport with St. Norbert’s students. As such, he does lots and lots of their marriages. (Katie has teased Jay that he essentially has two goals in this complicated wedding. First, make sure that the brides all marry the right groom. Second, make sure they marry just one groom.)
Fr. Sal will preside with Claire and Sam. Sal is a true character—a droll, wisecracking, call-it-like-it-is kind of guy—basically, what you might get if you crossed a leprechaun with Frank Sinatra. Claire has been enamored of Sal since the Sunday she was visiting and attended Mass with us and Sal was blessing the congregation with a sprinkling of water. Usually this is done with a small appliance (officially known as an aspergillum) that looks a bit like a handheld microphone. Or sometimes, especially in the Lenten season, palm leaves are used. Either way, the idea is for the priest to send forth the water in a gentle sprinkle over the people. Sal, instead, was dipping a large, hydra-headed kind of implement into a bowl of water and then firing torrents at his near-cowering but bemused congregation.
 Claire leaned over to me. “That looks like a toilet-bowl cleaner,” she said.
“That’s because it is,” I said. That’s Sal in a nutshell.
Overseeing the vows for Helen and Mike is Fr. Tim Klosterman, a young priest who is a good friend of Mike’s. Fr. Klosterman—or T.K., as the kids know him—was just ordained in 2008 and he is now on the pastoral staff at St. Monica parish in Los Angeles. They got to know one another when Mike was 14 and a junior lifeguard at a city pool in his hometown of Palmdale, Calif., and T.K. was a senior lifeguard. They became good friends, and in fact Mike credits discussions with T.K. in sparking his own spirituality and eventual adoption of Catholicism. So Helen and Mike are thrilled that Fr. Tim is going to be able to fly out and preside over their part of the triple wedding. I haven’t met him yet, but as far as I’m concerned anyone whose initials are T.K. must be all right.


With the church venue squared away and the presiders decided, the next big issue involved an appropriate reception site. The girls checked out several possible sites, including a beautiful country club and the campus’ own formal dining room. But figuring they will likely be filling all 425 of those church seats, the girls knew they needed to be able to accommodate a like number of guests for a dinner reception, and few of the venues they checked out, short of securing Lambeau Field, could do that.
It was my chief of staff, Amy Sorenson, who provided the solution—and it was literally right under our collective noses.
What about the caf? Amy suggested.
The college cafeteria is in St. Norbert’s Sensenbrenner Union building, and frankly we hadn’t given it much thought for this. I mean, it’s an excellent cafeteria, but it is a cafeteria, and one whose design unquestionably affixes it as a product of the ‘70s—not exactly the acme of cafeteria styling, if you know what I mean. It had nothing of the Martha Stewart Brides vibe that young women are looking for as they plan their big day. But Amy knew from personal experience (her own daughter’s wedding a few years ago) that the cafeteria, with enough time, imagination, candles and tulle (!!!), could be transformed into something genuinely lovely. Significantly, it can easily handle 425 diners and still have room for a decent dancing floor. (Hmmm, I really must inquire about those waltz lessons.) Beyond that is the incredible convenience: our guests would have all of a two-minute stroll across the leafy campus after the wedding, and there’s a wonderful terrace where we could have a pre-reception, um, reception as folks awaited the brides and grooms.
Besides, October 9 would fall on our campus’ annual “long weekend,” where students head home for a four-day break. So the cafeteria would be available for the girls to decorate to their hearts’ content. Done deal.
Oh, and I almost forgot: The other great thing about having the reception on campus is that our dining staff would be preparing the food. Now, if “college food” makes you think of Hamburger Helper and lumpy milk, you’ve obviously never eaten at St. Norbert College. The Norbertines have a nearly millennium-long tradition of providing “radical hospitality” to their guests, and that has translated into food service on this campus that is second to none. We don’t “outsource” our food service to one of those faceless corporations with names like semiconductor manufacturers. We have our own chefs and kitchens staffs, and by God their mommas taught them how to cook a proper meal.
The girls knew this already from personal experience, but no dummies, they figured this would be a great opportunity to get free samples to “be sure.” So the St. Norbert chefs prepared for them a lavish sampler with a range of possible entrees, with the wines to match. (I figured this was a crucial enough decision that I needed to break away from my own pressing business and offer an additional opinion.) Suffice it to say everything was wonderful. In the end, the girls decided that their guests will have a choice of salmon, el Pollo Norberto (that would be fancy chicken) or a vegetarian pasta. As I say, no one will be whining about the food. For half a century the Green Bay Packers’ football team has stayed at St. Norbert during its summer training camp, and there is one simple reason why: The Packers love the food. Can’t get enough of it. And if it’s good enough for pro football players, believe me, it will be good enough for you.
Since the girls were in town anyway, they thought it would be fun to swing by some of the local bridal shops to look at dresses. I don’t know whether they seriously expected to find what they were looking for—or even if they knew what they were looking for—but at a shop called Elaine’s in the neighboring village of Ashwaubenon (that’s Ash-WOB-a-non for you non-Cheeseheads) all three girls found the “perfect” dress for them. As someone who blanches at the mere overhearing of the prices for designer dresses on those terrifying “bridezilla” cable TV shows, I was thrilled to learn that the girls were ordering gowns for “very reasonable prices,” or so I was told. I say "so I was told" because I, of course, wasn’t permitted within a quarter mile of any of this activity, and in fact I cannot describe the dresses to you because no one will tell me what they look like. Other than “they’re beautiful,” which I’m sure is true. I mean, they’ll be on my daughters. How could they not be?
I am also pleased that most of this wedding outlay will be staying in the greater Green Bay economy. Nonetheless, and despite the bargains they are driving, the girls have been in town just four days and I’m already feeling like a one-man Stimulus Package.
And there’s still the matter of the photographer—or photographers, that is—and the flowers and the entertainment and the honeymoons. And maybe a chartered bus from our hometown in Evansville. And the hotels! My God, the hotels! Debbie is booking so many hotel rooms that I think I just saw Priceline’s William Shatner pull up in the driveway.
I will talk more about this in a later installment, but older sisters Kate and Claire are happy to have Helen be the designated planner for the bridal team. So she has partnered with her mom for the majority of the logistical work. I know Deb’s “wedding planning book” is already about as corpulent as a Spiegel catalog, and I suspect Helen’s is too.
On this last point, there’s one other thing everyone says when they hear about the triple wedding. That is to point out that Deb and I must be pleased because we’re saving so much money due to all the economies of scale—one reception, not three; one band, not three; one mother’s dress, not three; and so on.
It’s a nice thought. I wish it were true.
The deal we made with the girls at the start—back at the stage where we all assumed they would have individual weddings; it already seems so long ago—was that we would give each couple a fixed amount of money for their wedding. It was a significant sum, enough to do a full, perfectly lovely wedding, but not enough to get crazy with. And further, our deal was that if they went with a smaller, more frugal wedding, they got to pocket the difference. On the other hand, if they wanted a more lavish wedding, that was fine too, but they would have to cover any overage themselves. It was my idea, that, and ordinarily the kids regard my ideas with TSA-like suspicion, and on occasion even disdain. But in fact they all thought this arrangement was eminently fair.
With the triple wedding, each couple is still getting the same amount of money. But now they are pooling their resources. They aren’t skimping, mind you, but in one way above all they are definitely their mother’s daughters—they are all frugal in the extreme. They can pinch a penny until old Abe squeals.
Which is to say they should all make out very, very well on this deal.

NEXT: The Proposals.

Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin