This couple is so special to me. When Kate had first reached out about the possibility of having me photograph their Yerkes Observatory wedding, she had described Walt and herself in the following words:
“Walt is an enchanting, adventure seeking, beer loving, poet of a human from a farm in Arkansas. I’m not really sure what I am but a Wisconsin girl who appreciates living. Together we love dive bars, taking road trips on country roads through all the small towns, brass bands, pickling, growing plants, weeping through documentaries, and cooking breakfast together on Saturday mornings in our underwear.”
She had me at dive bars, but the parts about growing plants and weeping through documentaries sealed the deal.
Their wedding day was nothing short of unique. Before this day, Yerkes Observatory hadn’t held an event on this platform beneath the world’s largest refracting telescope since it’s grand opening in 1897. Frontier Flowers of Fontana created these magnificent statuesque floral arrangements that complemented Yerkes architecture in the most beautifully subtle way. My favorite detail being the cotton that was intentionally placed throughout arrangements – a nod to Walt’s father and grandfather – both cotton farmers in Arkansas. The music and recited poems were meaningful and brilliant. There wasn’t a single detail of their day that didn’t speak volumes about their characters; quirky and playful, elegant and deeply rooted.
But aside from all the details was their love story. Below is what Walt read to Kate during their ceremony. I dare you to read it and not feel invested.
“In the summer of 2011, I came to Lake Geneva for the first time. Alone. I’d heard it was a special, romantic place but I never had anyone who wanted to take my micro-adventures with me. I can be a bit much to handle with all my curiosities and peculiar passions. I stayed in a godawful motel by myself called the Chateau Royale or as I later deemed it, the Shiteau Royale. I walked around town, saw the couples in restaurants, saw the families on the beach, saw the bikers drinking in Fat Cats with their parked Harleys outside. It really came over me like a hearse that I was alone. Most of my friends had moved to New York, LA, and San Francisco. My brother and his family had moved from Chicago to Pennsylvania. I got back in my car and decided to drive. I drove through Williams Bay and into what I thought was the countryside when appeared a sign reading: Yerkes Observatory. Yerkes, I knew that name from being a tour guide. He’d built the El trains in Chicago. Hmmm. So, I took a left and drove ever-so-slowly through the tree-lined driveway. There it was. The Observatory. I’d never been so alone. I exploded in tears. I just cried and cried and cried for easily twenty minutes. Right in the front lawn of this Observatory. I’d never had a breakdown like this before. And why here? Why here?
I didn’t know anyone from Lake Geneva or Williams Bay and I had no idea Fontana existed. But something happened to me that afternoon at this Observatory. Something happened indeed. Looking back, I think I had a mild nervous breakdown, the kind that’s so heavy your spirit actually alters itself. I metamorphosed into a man who understood and came to terms with the fact that I’d be alone the rest of my life and it was okay.
A year later in October of 2012, I met Kate. For those of you who don’t know, Kate grew up a baseball’s throw from here. If there were no trees, you could easily see the Six house from here. Kate worked for the Magnificent Mile Association and I managed the trolleys and double deckers in the parade her organization put together. We became friends. She was so shy. It was almost as if I frightened her. But I wasn’t hitting on her. I was not at that place and she was just out of college. But we talked about indie music all the time. No one else talked about that with me. And she laughed and laughed and laughed. We stayed friends for two years. In October of 2014, she got a new job so I wouldn’t be working with her on the parade anymore. As fate would have it, her new job placed her on the same committee as me for this damn parade. We sat next to one another at a meeting in the Chicago Tribune Tower. She looked so beautiful. My heart was beating so fast, but nothing happened. We had an age gap and I was really fat by then and happy to be alone. After the meeting, one of my friends said, “What’s the deal with you and Kate? Y’all looked like you were in love. There was some crazy energy coming from around you.” I had no idea Kate and I had even interacted much that day. I still thought she thought I was buffoonish, a certain caricature of a Southern, bohemian, Beatnik poet. But in November after the parade, we talked all night at the after-party. On a crowded dance floor (which is odd because we don’t dance in public) this shy girl reached out and held my hand. We held hands for an hour under our coats so our friends couldn’t see. I’ve been in love with her ever since. Never a doubt in my mind.
A week or so later, she texted me “Wanna go have a ____ sometime.” A what? She’d forgotten a word. “Drink” texted through a few minutes later. I found out a year later that she, her sister, and mom were at lunch when this text was sent. Kate was afraid to send the text and consulted Meg and Bridget and the waiter. The waiter looked at the text and hit send on Kate’s phone. Regardless, when the message came through, my heart beat so fast. I wanted to throw up. I paced around my apartment for hours not knowing what to respond. I was so resigned to forging through life alone. I tried to think of a polite way to get out of it. I was so sure this would result in heartbreak for me because I liked her so much. I said yes. Aaaand I didn’t see her again for two months… till February 9th. I avoided it at all costs. I went to the gym. I tried to get myself right, ya know? But it wasn’t happening. I thought I had successfully avoided feelings and love and romance. Till that year on February 9th .
At an event, she appeared as if in a dream, like today. The circle of people she was talking to parted at once and I walked over to her in some unusual act of boldness and whispered in her ear, “You are the most beautiful woman in Chicago.” I may have said the country or the world or even the Cosmos. I don’t remember exactly. But I meant it. I really mean it now. We have not separated since that moment. We fell wildly in love. Very quickly, we knew we were destined for one another.
So nervous to meet her parents because of our age difference, she made me meet them a month into dating. A month! She brought me home to Lake Geneva after a month. I guess she liked me. And this has been an extraordinary love story. We’re so attracted to one another’s minds and bodies. We have decided without hesitation or reservation to approach the world and the heavens and the wild adventures of the mind together. In love and together. We call ourselves the Cosmos Mariners. And we’re here in this same Yerkes Observatory, getting married in front of our family and friends.
I love you, Kate. I love you so much. You are my partner for the rest of my life, no matter what. We can have all the ice cream we want.”
Inspiration behind the day:
“Our inspiration for the day was to showcase our specific, unique love story. We wanted the day to be very “us.” We wanted to have a ceremony and reception in places where these had never been done. No one had ever been married in the Big Dome at Yerkes Observatory underneath the telescope. No one had ever had a reception at Mars Resort, a classic Wisconsin supper club and tavern on Lake Como. We had a traditional Friday night fish fry, not so traditional for wedding receptions. We wanted to remove as many antiquated notions of gender roles as we could, thus we planned meticulously so each morsel of the ceremony equally uplifted the couple and men and women. The music highlighted the actual music we listen to instead of what people think of as wedding music. We had our friends and family sing and perform songs during the ceremony. We had them read poems we have loved for years, not simply “love” poems. In addition to English, we had them read in French and Spanish. These poems were “Compassion” by Miller Williams, “Happiness” by Carl Sandburg, and “With Our Eyes Shut” by Octavio Paz. The Kishwaukee Ramblers, a folksy mountain string band with a repertoire of the Americana songbook, played on the floor of the Observatory. Our inspiration for the day, back to the original question, was to have everybody leave the day thinking, “We’ve never seen anything like that and we will never see anything like that again. And wow, they’re in love.” We wanted them to notice that we cared about them as not only friends and family, but as audience members.
Our performance inspirations were poetry readings at North Beach bookstores and bars in San Francisco in the late 1950s, folk music shows in Greenwich Village coffee shops in the early 1960s, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television show, Jason Isbell concerts when his wife Amanda Shires plays fiddle, Tom Waits on Austin City Limits in 1978, wedding and funeral processions through the streets of the French Quarter and the Marigny in New Orleans, backyard jams in the Arkansas Ozarks, blues jams at juke joints in the Arkansas Delta, college radio stations, readings at Gertrude Stein’s home and Silvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in 1920s Paris, punk rock shows at small clubs of the early to mid-1980s, country churches in the Arkansas Delta, Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, and Miller Williams reading his poem “Of History and Hope” at the 1996 Presidential Inauguration.”
Advice for couples planning now:
“Do exactly what you want. Don’t invite anyone you don’t want to invite just because you think you should. Don’t be traditional if you don’t want to. If you design your ceremony, still make sure you have a day-of wedding coordinator who’s not a friend or family member to run the day. Be yourselves. Don’t fight with one another during the planning. Make sure the rings fit. Don’t over-think every single detail. Embrace imperfection. Make sure to use the washroom before the ceremony. Drink lots of water but stop an hour before the ceremony. Don’t be afraid to use humor in the ceremony. Pick a memorable venue. Treat the day as if you’re putting on an event, not a wedding. If you’re not religious, don’t be scared to cut that out of your wedding entirely (no one will care as long as you love one another). If any groomsmen are wearing bow ties, make sure they know how to tie them beforehand. Take pictures before the wedding because all you’ll want to do after the ceremony is socialize and be with your guests. Don’t drink alcohol before the wedding. Don’t get drunk the night before the wedding. Choose an experienced and fun public speaker as your officiant. Have a handkerchief for sweating and tears during the ceremony. Do extensive sound checks before the ceremony to make sure everyone in the venue can hear. Do the absolute best you can to make sure people don’t drink and drive after the reception (provide transportation or have the reception near or in a good hotel). Spend the most money on the things that are most important to you. Find a photographer you bond with months before the wedding and whose wedding and non-wedding photographs you totally dig. Be very conscious about enjoying every second.”