Friday, October 29, 2010

I Do, I Do, I Do (Ch. 16)

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

By Thomas Kunkel


Click here for previous chapters:   Ch.15   Ch.14  Ch.13  Ch.12  Ch.11  Ch.10  
Ch.9   Ch.8  Ch.7   Ch.6   Ch. 5   Ch. 4   Ch. 3   Ch. 2   Ch. 1

October 18, 2010
One weekend the house is Grand Central, with brides and bridesmaids and flower girls and photographers and aunts and uncles and grannies and friends bustling hither and yon. The next weekend it’s just me, with only our rat-dog of a family pet, Sammy, for company.
Sigh. A dad’s life.
One by one they have all peeled away, the kids ready to start leading their new lives.
At 3:30 a.m. on the Monday after the wedding, Deb and I crawled out of bed and loaded Nick and Katie into our Highlander for the four-hour round-trip drive to the Milwaukee airport, much of it in dreadfully thick fog, to get them on a plane to start their honeymoon. They were spending the week at a beach getaway in Jamaica.
Not long after we got back, Sam and Claire drove off to a rustic resort in western  Wisconsin, where they were looking forward to a lot of hiking, kayaking, and just chilling out.
Not long after that, we grabbed a bite of lunch with Gracie and then dropped her off at the Green Bay airport for her return flight to Maryland.
And not long after that, Mike headed to the airport, too, to return to San Diego and his flight training. He’d managed just enough leave time to come in a few days ahead of the wedding and actually get married. But he and his bride will have to wait a few months before they can get to Hawaii for their honeymoon.
That left Helen, at least temporarily. With Deb’s much-practiced help, she spent a day or two packing up her worldly goods into about thirty boxes. That Wednesday morning a moving van came by and picked them up.
Then early Thursday, she and Deb climbed into our Camry and pointed it west by southwest. I enjoyed telling people that Helen was honeymooning with her mother. They made a multi-day road trip to San Diego, by way of Las Vegas (I guess Helen didn’t get the memo that you’re supposed to do Vegas before you get married). Deb flies back in a day or two, and Helen is reunited with Mike—and freshly in possession of Deb’s car, part of our wedding “settlement” with her. (Deb, meantime, will get a new car out of this deal, which, unsurprisingly, she negotiated before telling me about it.)
So I am left here with this feckless dog, whom I can plainly see is no happier about the situation than I am.
It’s the culmination of a week that started fast, then went into a full-bore sprint until we finally crossed the finish line, exhausted, yes, but entirely exhilarated.


Claire and Sam had been the first to arrive, driving in a full week before the wedding—just in time to see a major spread on the wedding in our local paper, the Green Bay Press-Gazette, in which Claire did a nice job explaining what seems so inexplicable to so many.

“What started as a joke between three sisters turned into a common-sense epiphany that seemed far more intriguing than improbable,” the article said. “After all, the Kunkel sisters had been known to share everything from clothes to jewelry to Barbie dolls growing up, so why not a wedding?
“ ‘Oh, my gosh, we share everything,’ said Claire, a high school teacher in Maryland. ‘Clothes. Friends. Katie and I had the same confirmations. We were always celebrating our graduations or birthdays at the same time. We all went to the University of Maryland. Sharing everything is pretty normal for us.’ ”
Their presence was a tangible reminder that it was really and truly happening, and of course Claire was a huge help to Deb and Helen as together they tended to the final, final details. But it was just a lot of fun having them around. One evening we got a bite of dinner and took in a movie, The Social Network (expect some Oscar nominations for this one), and the next morning Sam and I slipped out to play a brisk round of golf.
Then on Wednesday the kids all converged on New York, albeit from different embarkation points—Sam, Claire and Helen from Green Bay; Nick, Katie and Grace from Maryland; and Mike from California. They were there to appear on the next morning’s broadcast of CBS’ Early Show. If they were a little nervous about appearing before millions of people on live television, they were mostly thrilled to get a brief but all-expenses-paid mini-vacation in New York, which both the girls and guys have always loved. And frankly, it proved a welcome diversion for the anxiety that inevitably would have been accumulating had they stayed back in De Pere.
The show’s producers put them up in a nice hotel not far from its Fifth Avenue studios near Central Park, and after spending the afternoon prowling the city the kids were treated to a great (read, expensive) dinner at a midtown steakhouse.
The next morning a car picked them up at 7 a.m. sharp at their hotel for the short ride over to the studio, where they all got some attention in the makeup chair and then waited around the set until it was time for their interview. Back here, meanwhile, Deb and I met Sam’s mother, Maria, at the Kress Inn to watch the show in the hotel’s hospitality suite. At the top of the 8 a.m. hour the camera showed the three couples as the hosts “teased” the upcoming segment—the girls up front, their guys in the back. They all looked great—and happy! Host Harry Smith remarked on what attractive couples they all are. Damn right, Harry!
Alas, there was no Grace. In trying to set up the tableau, the producers came to the understandable conclusion that she would be a “seventh wheel” for the purposes of the visual symmetry. So she was relegated to the sidelines. (She later admitted to feeling a little deflated at that—not because she was dying to be on television but because she had worked so hard, at the show’s urging, to be able to speak to what the wedding meant to the rest of the family.)
About quarter after the hour, their segment began with a delightful two-minute filmed set-up that introduced the couples and quickly recounted how they’d had gotten together in the first place, and eventually engaged within days of one another. The segment used quite a few of the “flip-cam” videos that the girls had recorded themselves, at the producers’ behest, to tell their stories. One fun shot in particular showed the four girls on a sofa, engaging in a staged group hug. If the scene was tongue-in-cheek, the affection was palpable. These were close sisters!
Then it went back to the studio, where Early Show co-host Maggie Rodriguez began interviewing the crew. I’d wondered how she would be able to get all of them involved with only a five-minute window to work with, but she did a very deft job of it.
She began by asking Katie if she still thought the triple wedding was a good idea. “Absolutely!” Katie said unhesitatingly. “Because I didn’t have to do any of the planning!” That led to discussion with Helen about what had gone into the planning and something of the complex logistics of the ceremony. Maggie segued into how each of the couples had found one another, then directly asked Nick if he was okay sharing the big day. His response was lovely. “I was mostly concerned about what she wanted, and making sure that this was going to be her day,” he said. “The Kunkel family, it’s easy to see they really are that close, and they want to share that.”
Maggie teased Sam a bit about whether he was nervous. Ever honest, Sam haltingly admitted to having some nerves, yes, who wouldn’t…and with that, Maggie unexpectedly burrowed in. “What are you worried about?” she said. (I sat there thinking, “That’s easy—have you met Claire?”)  But Sam—eminently more polite than I am, and too smart to want to doom his marriage before it began, right there on national television—just hemmed and hawed a bit more. But at that point Claire cleverly interjected that he was just worried about getting his bowtie on straight. Relieved laughter all around.
Maggie closed with a final question that I found especially moving. “Is Dad paying for all this?” Yes, they answered in unison, perhaps a little too gleefully.
“Poor Tom! Poor Tom Kunkel!” Maggie exclaimed.
As Deb and Maria looked my way, I blurted out, “Precisely! Thank you!”
From there the couples headed straight for LaGuardia, and they were back in Green Bay by mid-afternoon. By then, both Mike’s and Nick’s families had arrived, and everyone converged on our house for a casual family dinner. That was followed by our first—and only—full-scale run-through of the father-daughter waltz, which we did under instructor Janet Gollnick’s close scrutiny, down in the cafeteria in the same space where we would do it at the reception two days later. Everyone had been doing their choreographic homework, and I began to think we might just pull it off after all. It was also an indulgence, I must say, to literally get some face time with each of the girls, even if it was spent spinning around a terrazzo floor. They were being tugged in so many directions all week, but for at least a few minutes I had their undivided attention. As we waltzed, a couple dozen of the various family members, including my mom and dad, came along to watch and make it a bit of a party.
It was a lovely way to end a lovely day.

Friday morning, my wife was back in Big Deb mode, with just one goal in mind—get those marriage licenses for Katie and Nick and Mike and Helen, and get them the minute the Brown County clerk’s office opened at 8 a.m. Our home county has an ordinance that requires couples marrying here to obtain their marriage license within thirty days of the wedding. Not much of a problem for people who live here. But for the rare couple commuting here to wed, it’s just one more challenge—and one complicated by the fact that the county insists you bring along an unusually lengthy list of original documents to prove you are you.
Claire and Sam had secured their license earlier in the week, and Deb had worked diligently with the other couples to make sure they a.) had the necessary papers, and b.) remembered to bring them to Wisconsin. Fortunately, they a.) did, and b.) did. Another potential disaster averted. Big Deb allowed herself to exhale. They were in and out of the office in twenty minutes, and there was no stopping this train now.
Their fates thus sealed, the guys then headed out with me to Oneida Country Club, where sixteen of us—grooms, groomsmen, uncles, cousins and friends—gathered for a celebratory round of golf on an absolutely spectacular early-fall day. Oneida is a verdant, old-school course, lovely at any time of the year. But on this day, the sugar maples lining Duck Creek, which bisects the course and touches a good half-dozen of its holes, were stunning shades of gold, orange and red against the blue sky. Even that nasty snap hook on No. 12 couldn’t upset you.
We finished in time to clean up and get back to the Campus Center at St. Norbert for the “rehearsal dinner”—in fact, an open house/reception/buffet for the hundreds of family and friends by now pouring into De Pere. The building fronts the Fox River on the campus’ eastern edge, and the wonderful weather extended into the early evening, beckoning many outside. The grooms’ parents had conceived the idea of a soup-and-sandwich open house in place of the traditional rehearsal dinner because, with so many families involved and so many people traveling for the wedding, it seemed a pragmatic alternative. And it proved to be. It was like a huge extended-family reunion—which, in a sense, it was. Or maybe more accurately, it was a huge, extended-family “pre-union.”
It was also one more example, of many, of the unfailing graciousness and incredible consideration that Maria, Chuck and Marcia (Nick’s parents) and Will and Julie (Mike’s) brought to the entire affair. We will never be able to thank them enough for that gift.
This rehearsal dinner also departed from tradition in that it occurred ahead of the rehearsal, not after it. At 6:30, we herded over to Old St. Joe’s Church everyone who had an actual role in the wedding—and I use “herded” advisedly, for with a triple wedding that was a fair percentage of the crowd.
As is usually the case at wedding rehearsals, the socializing and high spirits tend to predominate, with most folks paying scant attention to instructions. Our three presiders and the wedding coordinator were doing their best to impose some order on the proceedings. But as fifty or more brides, grooms, moms, dads, ushers and flower girls packed the gathering space outside the sanctuary proper, ostensibly to start a run-through of the ceremony, it was barely controlled chaos. I mean, it was fun chaos, but chaos nonetheless.
It all made me a bit anxious. I made myself smile—even as I told myself, well, tomorrow this has the potential to be a logistical catastrophe ….


I needn’t have worried. From the breaking of a beautiful dawn over the Fox River to my girls’ surprise “reveal” of their wedding gowns, all signs pointed to this being a perfect day, and that’s how it turned out.
Between Deb, Helen, Fr. Sal and my St. Norbert colleague Amy Sorenson, everything had been planned as if by script. No, make that by actual script. Think I’m kidding? Here’s a small excerpt from the “Saturday” entry that Amy had prepared and distributed to all involved:

11:30 a.m.: Fr. Jay brings grooms to Presidential Suite, Kress Inn, and gets lunch out of refrigerator
                        11:30 a.m.: Lunch delivered to home and Kress Inn
11:30 a.m.: Flowers delivered to Kress Inn (for parents, groomsmen, ushers and grandparents)
                        11:45 a.m.: Flowers delivered to Kunkel home
12 noon: Pat Dart arrives at Kress Inn to help grooms and groomsmen with ties, etc.
12 noon: Ladder up in church, remove and store in Boyle Hall when [photographer] Jerry Turba is set in balcony
                        12:15 p.m.: Memorial bouquet and other ceremony flowers to church
                        12:30 p.m.: Flower girls arrive at Kunkel home
                        1 p.m.: Parking signs are placed in JMS lot and behind heating plant
                        1 p.m.: Nicole begins flower set-up at Union
                        1 p.m.: Brides, bridesmaids, flower girls, Kunkel family photos at home
                        1 p.m.: Programs brought to church (Amy/Jamie)

And so on…single spaced…for several pages.
And you know what? That’s exactly how the day unfolded, pretty much down to the minute. It was amazing to watch—which is essentially what I did, per the plan. I didn’t see much of the guys, who Fr. Jay had over at the Abbey and was shepherding to their appointed rounds. I did help a bit with the girls’ morning shuttles to hair and makeup, but for the most part I watched cars of young women going and coming—fairly frowsy and rumpled in the going, stunningly beautiful in the coming back. It was a veritable Makeover Merry-Go-Round.
Indeed, the more I stared at Amy’s script, the very specificity of it—almost daring any little unwanted detail to just try to elbow its way into the agenda—was as reassuring as the church scrum the night before had been, well, not.
Beyond following their script, I should also add that everyone was happy. Giddily, kid-like, let’s-have-a-party happy. And that sheer happiness just seemed to explode whatever nerves we might have had otherwise.
At 2:35, right on Amy’s cue, the bridesmaids left the house and headed for the church. Ten minutes later, beautiful brides Katie, Claire and Helen walked out our front door toward their waiting car. As Deb and I and Helen stood on the porch seeing them off, Jerry Turba snapped a poignant photo to catch that unique family moment. In every sense, it was time.


The rest of the day played out like a sun-drenched, tulle-draped reverie—and truth be told, not altogether different from the far-fetched dream I’d had years before about that multiple wedding in the University of Maryland chapel. And as it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who likened the day to a dream. Since the wedding, it’s been amazing how many attendees have gone to the trouble of writing us to thank us and say how moved they too were by such a memorable and joyful occasion. Given that the day’s inherent theme was sharing, that response has been especially gratifying to us all.
But maybe the most remarkable note of all came from a couple in Illinois that we’ve never met—Gilbert and Arlisle Beers. This is what the letter said, in its entirety:
“Dear Mr. Kunkel:
“Imagine our surprise when we discovered the triple wedding of your daughters. We were married sixty years ago in a triple wedding in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Yes, we were also three sisters, and all six of us are all still healthy and happily married. We had never heard of another triple wedding before or since, until we saw the lovely picture in the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
“Please add our congratulations to you and your family at this time of joy.”
Three sisters, three couples, three still-thriving sixty-year marriages! I of course sent it to the kids, as it is without question one of the most hopeful testaments I’ve ever seen.

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

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I Do, I Do, I Do (Ch. 15)

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

By Thomas Kunkel

Click here for previous chapters:   Ch.14  Ch.13  Ch.12  Ch.11  Ch.10  
Ch.9   Ch.8  Ch.7   Ch.6   Ch. 5   Ch. 4   Ch. 3   Ch. 2   Ch. 1

 October 10, 2010
The simplest way to say it, I think, is this: It was a day of love—pure, joyful, unashamed, unvarnished love. As St. Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians, one of the ceremony’s readings, “Love bears all things, believes in all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
As I write this, we are all exhausted physically but still quite exhilarated emotionally. The adrenalin carried us effortlessly aloft all through the day and the wedding itself, through the eternity of picture-taking, the pre-reception reception, the dinner, and into an effervescent evening that didn’t finish until nearly midnight. That adrenalin is now long gone, and at the moment my middle-aged legs feel like two columns of concrete. But I can scarcely stop smiling, so perfect was the Big Day, perfect in just about every conceivable way it could be.
I am up early, as is my wont, and in a little while I will start pulling together a casual brunch at the house for the newlyweds, their parents, some of their bridesmaids and groomsmen, and any immediate family who aren’t heading home straight away. We’re expecting a couple dozen folks, so there’s quite a bit to prepare. But I wanted to take a few minutes to set down some quick impressions from what was the most joyful day in Deb’s and my married life, or I should say the most joyful since the birth of all these girls so long ago.
The wedding day began around six a.m. No alarms were set, but the girls and I all arose about the same time after a somewhat fitful and abbreviated night of sleep. I heard the brides-to-be giggling in the kitchen for a while before they called up for Deb and me. They bid us to come down to the basement. When we did, the girls opened a door to a storage room—and there, hanging from the exposed joists overhead, were three beautiful wedding gowns.
It had been nearly a year since they’d picked out those gowns, and nearly a year of me wondering what they might look like. Now they were presented right in front of me, as wonderful and unexpected a gift as I could have asked for.
There was, however, a bit of price to be extracted for this special preview. “So Dad,” Claire said, “guess which dress belongs to which daughter?”
Gulp. I looked harder at the details. All were ivory-colored gowns, strapless and with “sweetheart” necklines and elegant trains. Dress A was made of silk and satin, with a beaded bodice, and it was punctuated with a gracefully long bow down the front. Dress B was made of chiffon and had a bodice of beautiful ruching. Dress C was made of taffeta, and its signature was a dazzling diamondlike pendant. I loved them all. And I hadn’t the foggiest idea which belonged to whom.
I guessed—and got all three wrong, to much laughter. I guessed again, and got them all wrong again, to more laughter, tinged with a little disbelief. I guessed a third time, and I still got two of them wrong, which I think is statistically not possible if the guesser is actually keeping track of his guesses. But frankly, I was still in such a state of shock being in the actual presence of these gowns of legend that my brain wasn’t working too well yet. (The correct answers: Helen’s was Dress A; Claire’s was Dress B; Katie’s was Dress C.)
After this happy start, the day’s business began in earnest. There were so many details that the bridal team had prepared a two-page, single-spaced schedule of activities.
But in truth, little of it had to do with me. As Deb and the girls and their bridesmaids were getting their hair and makeup done up in a kind of stylists’ assembly line, I tried to occupy myself back at home. I swept the fallen autumn leaves from the front porch and driveway, and then from the back patio, in case they were needed for photo settings later. I tried to straight up the house, which as the week went on was gradually taking on the look of a trailer park after the tornado came through. I sat the two dogs in residence—ours as well as Claire’s yellow Lab, Chase. I went over the toast I would give later that night.
How glamorous was my pre-wedding day? Well, about two minutes after I put on my tuxedo, Deb called. Grace answered but I also picked up—in time to hear Deb say, “Has anyone been out back to clean up whatever doggie doo is in the backyard?” Grace, already in her lovely navy-blue maid of honor gown, began to protest. But I cut her short. “I’m on it,” I said.
And moments later there I was, the tuxedoed president of a prestigious liberal arts college, shovel in hand and policing my grounds, doubtless the best-dressed pooper-scooper in wedding history.
About this time the rest of the bridesmaids were arriving at the house, and then the three flower girls—our too-adorable-for-words great-nieces Amelia, Hope and Abigail—and finally the brides themselves.
The scene was a surreal little dichotomy—from the shoulders down they were in loose-fitting shorts and T-shirts, but from the shoulders up they were made up like models, as beautiful as I had ever seen them, with their bridal veils already fixed into their hair.
As they saw them disappear down the basement stairs, I thought for a moment, well, they’re still my girls. Just half an hour later, however, they re-emerged, one by one, as princesses.
It’s an astonishing thing when a father sees a daughter at that moment, so impossibly beautiful in a way he has never seen her and could scarce imagine her, and knowing that within mere hours he officially is not the most important man in her life anymore. The ache that hits you, you can’t quite anticipate—but neither do you really want to let it go.


The weather was nothing short of glorious, the kind of day where just stepping outside puts an appreciative smile on your face. The entire week, in fact, had been so incredibly ideal that it was borderline suspicious, and in the days leading up to the weekend you felt it couldn’t actually stay that way through the wedding day. But here it was—literally not a cloud to be found in the crystalline blue skies, a light wind coming off the river, with temperatures climbing to an ideal seventy degrees. It was hard not to take that as an omen for what lay just ahead.
About one o’clock, photographer Jerry Turba and his associate came by the house—and we immersed ourselves in photos and photos and photos…of the girls separately, with their sister brides, with their bridesmaids, with their flower girls, with Grace, and of course, with Mom and Dad. How can standing still and smiling be so exhausting? Still, it was fun, part of the buildup. And the girls were all just radiant, the only word to do them justice. They were nervous, surely, but any nerves were overwhelmed by the sheer joy of anticipation realized.
Eventually even Jerry couldn’t think of any more photographs to take, so we were done.
It was time. The bridesmaids shuttled off down to the church, as did Deb and I, and in a trailing SUV, the three brides.


Upon arriving, they slipped into an oratory space at one end of the church. A large white screen kept them from view of the wedding parties, including the three grooms, who were collecting in the adjoining gathering space. I stepped out for a moment to greet each of the boys with a hug and a word of encouragement, but they were as excited as the girls. And all three looked most handsome. Sam was in a vested tuxedo with white tie; Nick was in a trim, single-button tuxedo with a black tie; and Mike was in his dress navy blue uniform, looking as crisp as you expect naval officers to look in such situations.
Three hundred guests meant the church felt fairly full without being uncomfortable. The mid-afternoon sun had the windows glowing and gave the space precisely the warmth we had hoped for. It was magical.
Precisely at three, the processional music kicked up.
When all the other parents had taken their seats, I escorted Deb into the sanctuary. If I may say so, she was an especially beautiful mother of the brides. She wore a stylish, sleeveless, knee-length dress that was the color of burgundy wine, and she had had her shoes dyed to match. She looked smashing. Reaching our seats, I squeezed her hand, then slipped away and out the smaller of the two side doors. It was time to get Bride No. 1.
Katie came out from the oratory to meet me. As she took my arm, I looked at her beaming smile and thought to myself, Was ever a bride more happy to be getting married? We slowly walked into the sanctuary space, bowed to the altar, then proceeded to where Nick, equally beaming, was waiting for her. I told her how much I loved her, gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek, then slipped her hand to her husband-to-be.
Again I left the sanctuary and arrived just as Claire emerged. She was every bit as happy as Kate, completely composed and just so pleased that this day had finally arrived. She didn’t appear nervous in the least as we walked in and headed down the aisle for Sam. He was stoic at first but relaxed as we came up, allowing himself a smile. Again, I leaned in to kiss my daughter, and give another man her hand.
One final loop to the back of the church. As I’ve said before, Helen is our emotional one, fully capable of crying at, say, a railroad crossing. So it wasn’t terribly surprising that, as she walked up to meet me, she was already working hard to fight back her tears. I hugged her and advised her to take a big breath. She wasn’t worried or even anxious, exactly—she was just so surpassingly happy that her emotions were in overdrive.
We walked in. When she caught sight of Mike, he smiled and she returned it, and I knew all was going to be fine. I kissed Helen’s cheek, gave Mike her hand—and asked him to take good care of her. “I will,” he said.
With that, I sat down next to Deb and proceeded to enjoy as lovely a wedding as I think I’ve ever seen. Of course, I’m hardly impartial about it. But too many other people later told me the same thing for me to doubt my reaction to what I witnessed.
The ceremony flowed seamlessly and hit precisely the tones the girls had wanted—majestic in parts but simple throughout; collective, naturally, but individual as well; spiritual but personal too. In their respective homilies about their couples, Fathers Jay, Sal and Tim offered humor, insight and stories in equal measure, and the vows went off without a hitch or glitch. Only Helen, again, got a little teary, and she was so soft-spoken that I can’t be sure she was actually saying what she was supposed to—although I’m sure she was, Fr. Tim being a stickler for details! Her sniffling got her sister brides sniffling too, but everyone got through it.
And speaking of sniffling…. In fact I did not go all blubbery, I’d have won that bet if I’d had had the courage to make it, which of course I didn’t. Indeed, a number of my friends commented that I seemed to maintain my composure. I replied that, in all honesty, I was just so happy about the couples’ own obvious happiness, about all I could do was smile. Later I saw a number of photographs taken during the service that proved it.
When the service was concluding—and in a brisk fifty-eight minutes!—Katie and Nick led the recessional, followed out by Claire and Sam. But at that point, a half-dozen of Mike’s groomsmen marched in, dressed in full naval regalia, and constituted the traditional Navy sword arch. At each “crossing,” the officers insisted that Mike and Helen kiss to continue on. After the final passage, Helen got another naval tradition—a friendly swat with a sword to her posterior. The audience was delighted and thrilled. Indeed, it was a touching and fitting finish to this extraordinary ceremony.
At the reception, I had the honor of formally welcoming all our guests and offer a toast to the three couples. I reprint it here because, really, it sums up how I felt about the entire occasion:

On behalf of Deb and Maria, Julie and Will and Marcia and Chuck—not to mention the brides and grooms—our heartfelt thanks to you all for coming from near and far to be here on this joyous day. We are especially pleased to have so many of our family members with us. And we are mindful, too, of our loved ones who look on from their places in heaven…where they are no doubt finding this little shindig a wonderful and welcome diversion from Grandma Niehaus’s terrible jokes.
Over the past year many of you have told us that a triple wedding is an extraordinary expression of the love that these sisters have for one another. I completely agree, of course. But that kind of bond could not exist without the nurturing and mentoring and example that was provided every day of the past 27 years by my wife, Deb. The girls know their father loves them very much, but I think they realized long ago that they are especially fortunate in their mother.
Parents quickly learn to gauge how their children are doing by the people they invite into their lives. Imagine how thankful and joyful Deb and I feel, knowing our girls have found such wonderful life partners in Nick, Sam and Mike. What can I tell you about them? All three are smart. All three are passionate, and about the right things. All are respectful and courteous, and all are thoroughly delightful company. Some would consider them rather handsome too, no? Most of all, of course, they love our girls. So Nick, Sam and Mike, on behalf of myself, my dad, my brother, my uncles and my male cousins, let me officially welcome you to the Kunkel Women spousal support group!
Julie and Will, Marcia and Chuck, and Maria and Tim—thank you for having raised such outstanding young men, and for being willing to share them with us.
Finally, I’d be terribly remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the world’s greatest—and busiest—maid of honor, our daughter Grace! From the inception of this idea, you handled your unique role with the kind of good humor and sensitivity and, well, grace, that few others could summon. We are all very proud of you!
And so we give thanks today for God’s many blessings on us. And let us toast the bride and groom…the bride and groom…and the bride and groom. Cheers!

Soon after, the three best men offered their toasts, all of which were delightful and poignant, albeit in very different ways—again, fitting the three-in-one theme of the entire day.
 Then it was left to Grace for the final toast. She talked movingly about what she had learned from each of the couples. From Katie and Nick, she said, she had watched how they balanced their very heavy workloads with time for one another. From Claire and Sam, she said, she had come to appreciate the importance of spontaneity and engaging in activities that, while perhaps out of one’s own “comfort zone,” would be things one’s partner would enjoy. And from Helen and Mike, she said, she had been inspired by how dedicated and close they were despite—or perhaps partly due to—their long separations from one another.
As Grace went on, she began to choke up a bit, which in turn had her sisters going teary-eyed too. But she stayed strong as she closed. “I love these six people,” she said, “and I am extremely happy to officially welcome these three men into my family—although I have considered them brothers for a very long time now.”
After dinner the couples did three sets of lovely first dances. Which brought us to the last little bit of business for me—the father-daughter dances we’d worked on for several weeks. The deejay brought up the instrumental Moon River as Deb delivered Katie to me on the dance floor.
I looked directly at her. “Happy?” I asked, taking her into my arms.
Very happy,” she said, smiling. And we went right into our waltz. As I’d hoped, I was really enjoying dancing with my daughter rather than worrying if I had the steps right.
It went flawlessly with Kate, as it did with Claire and then Helen, all of them beaming, and finally with Grace as the other three couples swirled around us.


People are arriving at the house now. No doubt they are hungry, and the stove is calling my name.
In a few weeks I will set down more fully what happened in the final week’s run-up to the wedding. But for now, let me say again that the word was, and is, love.

NEXT: The Week That Was.
Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I Do, I Do, I Do (Ch. 14)

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

By Thomas Kunkel

Click here for previous chapters:   Ch.13  Ch.12  Ch.11  Ch.10  
Ch.9   Ch.8  Ch.7   Ch.6   Ch. 5   Ch. 4   Ch. 3   Ch. 2   Ch. 1

October 1, 2010
The other day Grace asked me to look over what she had written for her maid of honor toast, which she’ll deliver at the wedding reception. As with all else in this wedding, she has to deal with not one bride but three—and sisters, to boot—so she is feeling something like triple the pressure to do well.
No surprise, given Grace’s sweet nature and writing talent, the sentiments she conveyed were touching and eloquently expressed. She’ll be fine. But reading this reminded me that I had yet to think about my own toast for the reception. So later that day, as I was driving the Wisconsin countryside on my way to a business meeting in Milwaukee, I started thinking about that little speech and what I would want to say in it. And much to my surprise I found myself starting to tear up.
Here we go….
Everything that can be planned has been planned, so as we get down to the wire we are mostly left to hoping—especially for good weather. Fortunately, autumn is right on schedule in northeast Wisconsin, and the leaves are taking on their color as if they have been reading the wedding playbook. So our only remaining wish is that it won’t be raining on October 9. If it’s not too cool, even better, but mostly we’re hoping it doesn’t rain. We’ve asked the Norbertine fathers to go straight to the top—to St. Norbert himself—to call in any favors they may have.
The only other remaining piece of business is the fancy footwork.
You’ll recall that many journal entries ago I talked about pursuing dance lessons so that I might have a proper father-daughter dance with the girls. Now, you may have chalked up my delay to the usual procrastination, and to some extent I won’t deny that. But in truth, the main reason I waited so long to start the lessons is so I couldn’t get rusty before I got to show my moves in the first place.
Over the summer a friend of mine, Michael Frohna, asked how the wedding planning was going. I said things were going along fine, but that I still hadn’t moved toward finding someone to teach me how to navigate a ballroom.
Michael lit up, said he and his wife were taking lessons with a wonderful dance instructor who specialized in individualized attention. Her name was Janet Gollnick, and Michael got to know her when Janet oversaw the choreography for Michael and other prominent locals who participated in a Dancing With the Stars-type charity event here last year. “You and Deb should definitely give her a call,” he said. “She’s wonderful.” He gave me her contact information.
I thanked him, took the information home—and set it down on my bureau for a few months. But in time that circled “October 9” on the calendar began to taunt me, so I retrieved Michael’s information and sent Janet an e-mail:
“On October 9 my wife Deb and I will see three of our daughters (we have four in total) get married at Old St. Joe. Deb and I are interested in getting some rudimentary dance lessons so I can do a respectable father-daughter dance. Beyond that, because we have three brides, we have an idea for a first dance that will involve all the girls and their new grooms. I can explain the idea but it will need some choreography, as you might imagine. Anyway, I thought I’d get in touch to see if this is something that might appeal to you.”
I hit “send”—and immediately began second-guessing myself. Would I look like an idiot? Would there be enough time to not look like an idiot? Would it even be fair to the girls to try something like this when they have so much else to worry about? Would the Austrian legation lodge an official protest over what we were doing to their national patrimony?
But the next afternoon Janet sent her reply: “Yes, I would love to help with the first-dance choreography and training for the brides and grooms, and would love to teach you and your wife. What a wonderful opportunity for me—it has never been my privilege to work with three daughters as they become brides…. I look forward to your call and to the teaching. Janet.”
So there it was; well-advised or not, we were on our way. As wise old Ecclesiastes said, it’s time to dance.


Mid-evening at the DanceSport studio in downtown Green Bay. The hardwood dance floor is commodious yet intimate, like a nice-sized living room stripped of furniture. It feels all the more intimate as it’s just Janet and Helen watching me waltz Deb around the floor like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ less accomplished aunt and uncle.
Well, just Janet and Helen and the camera guy from WLUK-Channel 11.
As the wedding has come closer, the local media have rediscovered the story. We have talked to various Green Bay stations and just did a long interview with the Green Bay Press-Gazette for a feature story that is scheduled to appear shortly before the wedding.
But a program on Channel 11, Good Day, Wisconsin, pitched us with a unique angle. They wanted to focus on all the various local vendors we are using, for a veritable series of reports on the wedding. So they have talked to Chef Lindsey the cake-baker, photographer Jerry Turba, the hair stylist, the florist, and so on. And because they’d heard we were taking dancing lessons, they wanted to know whether they could come out and film us. Janet didn’t mind, and, perversely, we didn’t either. What’s the point of embarrassing yourself if there’s no one to see it?
So as we went through our paces, the young cameraman quietly filmed away. Once or twice I noticed him lowering the camera to floor level, presumably to capture that dazzling footwork. Right on cue my feet improvised an ugly two-step that I guarantee  you is not found in any instruction book, completely throwing Deb and stopping us dead. Hmmm..… maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
A charming and graceful woman, Janet is also an experienced teacher. She is unfailingly encouraging but at the same time not especially indulgent of one’s newbie-ness. She believes in plunging you into dance more or less the way your equally loving dad might have steered you straight onto a busy freeway to teach you how to drive.
Within our first minutes together, Janet had showed Deb and me the basic box step of the waltz, and before long we were getting comfortable enough with it to begin moving about the floor in a gentle, if tentative, rotation. It felt a bit awkward at times, as we could see in one another’s moving lips the earnest counting of steps. But as the footwork became a little more second-nature, I relaxed and let my feet go into more of a gliding motion, not as jerky. Deb did too. Catching occasional glances of my wife and I in the mirror, it actually didn’t look too bad. We were dancing!
A waltz, of course, is defined by a three-count beat. One two three, one two three… When we think of the dance, we also typically imagine the timeless Viennese music of the Strausses. But all sorts of songs in effect are waltzes. Stephen Sondheim’s poignant Send in the Clowns is a waltz (indeed, the show that number comes from, A Little Night Music, is composed entirely of waltzes). The traditional tune Greensleeves is a waltz, and so is Heartland’s recent country hit (and wedding staple), I Loved Her First.
Janet got us on the subject of music, because it was important to quickly settle on what our selection would be. We kicked around a few possibilities, but one evening Janet played us a sprightly instrumental version of Moon River. It had been brought to her attention by one of her dance assistants, a tall young man named Rane, who thought it might work for this. Henry Mancini's enduring tune is wonderful, of course, and the tempo of this version hit us as just right for dancing a comfortable waltz. And since it was quite short, we could repeat it for each daughterly turn. So this would become our soundtrack as we went through our paces.
With the music selected, Janet quickly began to choreograph a simple but elegant routine for me to dance in succession with each daughter. I will now describe it here, and if you waltz, this will seem very clear and straightforward to you. If you don’t, well, just take my word for it, it’s deceptively elegant, even when danced by a rank amateur.
Deb will lead one bride to the center of the dance floor, where I’ll be waiting for her. After we acknowledge one another, I’ll take my daughter into my arms with the start of the music. We will first execute eight simple box steps, rotating all the way, after which the daughter will do a graceful spin beneath my arm. We will then transition to a “spiral” progression for another run six beats, after which she will do another underarm turn, finishing with a light flourish to the audience.  At that point, Deb will be escorting out the next daughter, and so on. The dance will end with me waltzing with Grace and the three couples dancing with one another.
Janet kept drilling us. Sometimes she danced with me, sometimes with Deb, and sometimes with both of us. And of course, Deb and I danced together quite a bit, validating the feeling I’d had for some time that we would enjoy learning to properly dance. Janet even showed us how the waltz can easily morph into a foxtrot or rumba. I’m already planning how, once the wedding is over, my wife and I might actually get out for an old-fashioned dinner-dance date!
 After our first few lessons Helen joined in as well. She had just returned from a visit to Maryland, where she was bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding and got the chance to bring her sisters up to speed on the wedding plans. Helen, our natural-born athlete, took to the steps easily. She danced in heels the same elevation as her wedding shoes, so she could get accustomed to the feeling. That made her exactly the same height as me, which I found a little unsettling.
It had taken a couple lessons, but I was finally getting somewhat familiar with the routine. Still, I kept running into trouble during the first of the turns. I realized that at that point I was not lined up the way I had begun the dance, and in trying to “correct” for that I was starting to think about what my feet were doing—and thinking is fatal in a novice dancer. I was almost literally tripping over myself.
With much patience Janet finally got me over that hurdle, at least when I was dancing with her. Going over the routine with Helen, however, I was still having trouble with the turn. But with Janet’s sharp eye, we finally figured that out, too. In doing her turn, Helen was making a tight little pirouette, in place. But she was supposed to make more of a full turn, almost like she was taking a mini-stroll. When she executed the step that way, it created enough time for us to come back together the way Janet’s play was drawn up.
I did another run-through with her, which went much better. Then I did one final practice run with Janet. We finished with a turnout flourish to our imaginary audience, then bowed to one another.
“That’s beautiful, really lovely,” Janet said. “Let’s print that one.”
I smiled, imagining myself for just a moment in white tie and tails. Maybe we’ll pull this off yet.


Amid all this last-minute activity, I celebrated a birthday. I won’t say which one, but if you are of a certain age yourself you’ll know it as the same figure the feds made us loathe in the ‘70s when, during the energy crisis, it became the national speed limit.
Now, I don’t get too excited about birthdays, especially my own, but it didn’t take me long to notice that Wisconsinites take great pleasure in them. In fact, it’s our custom at St. Norbert College that every employee, on his or her birthday, gets a congratulatory e-mail from the president. The e-mail links them to a comic video that features me firing up an acetylene torch. (And yes, it was as much fun to film as it sounds.)
At any rate, this particular Friday afternoon I was in my office, minding my own business. I may even have been snacking on some Whoppers, the chocolate-covered malted milk balls that I have a bit of a weakness for.
About 2 o’clock, faculty and staff began poking into my office, in two’s and three’s, to wish me a happy birthday. That was not a little suspicious in and of itself. But the truly odd thing was, they all came bearing gifts—and the gifts were all the same. Cartons and boxes and bags…of Whoppers.
The folks from Mission and Heritage brought in a Whopper cake. The little kids from the day-care center brought in tiny packets of Whoppers. Brian Pirman, a professor of graphic design, brought in a giant Whopper box he had made up, showing my face artfully plugged into the Whoppers logo where the O is supposed to be.
Turns out that a few days earlier those fun-loving sisters in my office, Amy and Jamie, had arranged to send the entire campus an e-mail letting folks know my birthday was coming up, that they were all invited to come by for a piece of cake—and by the way, that it might be nice if they brought me a present of Whoppers.
For the purposes of that one note, incidentally, I was removed from the campus e-mail system. As I didn’t even know we could do that, this was a handy piece of information.
Anyway, the whole event put an altogether contemporary spin on the ancient Norbertine concept of communio. And now I have about a hundred boxes of Whoppers stowed in the office-supply closet.
Fortunately, as there’s no actual food product in Whoppers, they can never go bad.

NEXT: Wedding bells.
Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.