Chuppah inside Hendrick's Chapel, Syracuse

The Surprise Wedding

By Gary Philips

August 11th, 1990


Sandy and I envisioned a normal wedding when we set the date for 8/8/70. However, it was not to be. Our difference of religion caused havoc in trying to please both of our families. I don’t wish to share publicly this negative situation, so let’s just say we basically had to elope. It wasn’t a “runaway” type of elopement. We said our vows in our apartment with a half dozen or so close relatives present. One of Sandy’s students’ father was a justice of the peace and he performed the quick ceremony. While getting into our cars afterward to head to a restaurant for dinner, my Uncle Mel accidentally closed the car door on my grandmother’s finger. Stoically, she said nothing. When we arrived at the restaurant, she asked the waiter for some ice water and kept her finger in it throughout dinner. It was only after dinner that she asked someone to take her to the emergency room. It turns out that her finger was indeed broken. We spent most of our wedding night with her in the hospital, got to sleep at about 3 a.m., and had to be at the airport at around 7 a.m. to leave for Disneyland and the rest of our west coast planned honeymoon. Needless to say, Sandy did not really experience the kind of wedding that she had hoped for, and when she mentioned that on a car ride some 19 years later, I decided to take some action.

The Preparation:

I was originally going to plan this for our 25th anniversary. However, since both of her parents and my mother were not getting any younger, I decided to push it up for our 20th anniversary while they were still healthy. I started planning this event immediately after our 19th anniversary. Other than help from my former student teacher and close friend, Luanne, I did this all by myself. The invitations were mailed back to Luanne’s address and she was always there for me to bounce ideas off of. I invited about 140 people and about 2/3 of them were able to attend. People came from such faraway places as Germany, Las Vegas, Arizona, and Florida. There are lots of side stories.

Right from the beginning, there were issues. The first thing that I did was contact our parents and sisters to be sure that the date that I was looking at would work for them. The first thing out of my Mother’s mouth was a throwback t0 19 years before. She said: “Who’s doing the service?” Really mom????? My plan was to try and get a rabbi and a priest to do it together. This was now almost 1990 (not 1970) and I thought it would not be a problem. How naive was I? After many unsuccessful attempts, I settled on a Methodist minister named Richard Phillips (no relation). He was the Dean of Hendrick’s Chapel at Syracuse University. Both he and the university were very supportive and went to great lengths to accommodate one of their alumni. My charge to rent the beautiful Hendrick’s Chapel was only $50 and Dean Phillips was willing to run the service any way that I wanted. He told me that I could totally script what I wanted him to say and that I could add any customs of either religion that I would want. Eventually, I settled on a chuppah, unity candles, and a long red carpet that covered the entire walkway from the entrance door all the way up to the pulpit.


Hiring a Vocalist:

Liverpool High School was holding tryouts for its spring musical. I sat in the back of the auditorium and observed the auditions. In fact, I was doing my own personal audition. I was blown away by the singing of a young lady named Heather. I approached her afterward and she enthusiastically agreed to be the singer at my wedding. I picked out three songs that I thought would work well for the occasion. (My Special Angel-which was our song, My Cup Runneth Over, and I Love You Because). I also hired an organist, Alyson Henry, the wife of Tom Henry who was a colleague of mine at the high school. I could not have made better choices for both Heather and Alyson.


The Wedding Dress:

First, I had to get the measurements without Sandy knowing. Both of us were on a volunteer consumer board of Chappel’s, which was a very popular clothing store in Syracuse. We met monthly with one of the owners to give feedback on consumer issues and also for them to bounce promotional ideas off of us before implementation. As a perk for doing this, an employee of Chappel’s was assigned to us as a “sort of personal shopper.” Her name was Sandy and she often called my wife. Sandy was also the mother of one of my students. So, I contacted her and set up a plan. She called my wife and convinced her to come down to the store. She said that she wanted to take her measurements so that she could have them on file when new lines of clothing came in. This was helpful, she told her, in order to give her ideal service. With these measurements in hand, I contacted my Aunt who owned a large clothing store in Easton PA which had an extensive bridal shop. She picked out the wedding dress (full train) and brought it with her to the wedding. Because the measurements were taken a full nine months before, I was so worried that Sandy might have gained some weight. So, my aunt brought a second dress with her just in case the first one didn’t fit. However, the first one fit like a charm.


The Invitations:

I apparently know a lot of people. One of my best friends, Frank, also a math teacher at Liverpool, had left teaching and moved to the Albany area. He changed careers a few times and had just bought a printing company. He did my invitations for free and they were beautiful. It began with: “Have you ever been to a wedding that was a surprise for the bride.” Then, it went on to say: “Scott and Jonathan Philips proudly announce the wedding of their parents, Gary and Sandra……..” Two different invitations were sent out. One went to local people and the other to those who had to travel. I needed to plan for the food at the reception. I paid for extensive gourmet hot and cold appetizers that were catered by a local business. For the main course, I asked the local guests to “in lieu of a gift, please bring a dish to pass.” But I didn’t want macaroni salad. What I wanted were secret family recipes. Luanne received the returned invitations and was responsible for coordinating the menu, so guests didn’t bring the same thing. For people coming from out of town, the invitation simply said, “No Gifts Please.” I addressed the invitations on my dining room table while Sandy was not at home. I had Scott, our 10-year-old, keeping a lookout for her through the window. I had decided that I would confide in Scott about what I was planning. I wasn’t confident that 7-year-old Jonathan could keep the secret, so I left him in the dark. I’m not sure if Jonathan has forgiven me for doing that.


Hiring a Different Kind of Band:

I did this more for me than for Sandy. I hired Eddie Fagan’s All-American Banjo Band to play upbeat music such as “Happy Days Are Here Again” and typical banjo music rather than traditional wedding music. I had first come across this musical group at a political fundraiser. After that, I would follow them wherever they were performing. Eddie was my inspiration to take banjo lessons later in life.


Fitting the Kids for Tuxedos Without Jonathan Knowing:

This was prearranged at a tuxedo store in the mall, where one of the employees was a student of mine. As Jonathan and I were walking in the mall and passing the tuxedo store, my student came outside with a tape measure. She looked at Jonathan and said to him: “How would you like to be in a fashion show?” Jonathan, of course, said, “Wow. Yeh, sure.” So, she measured him and then said to Jonathan, “Now don’t tell your mother; we want to surprise her.” So, what was the worst thing that could happen? He could tell Sandy that he was going to be in a fashion show.


Two Things That Almost Went Wrong and One Very Minor Thing That Did:

  1.  About 4 weeks before the event, my Mother casually asked me if the reception hall I had reserved had air conditioning. I had never asked that question. I had assumed that they did. So, I thought that I better check. They did not. They were kind enough to let me out of my contract. I found a new place with air conditioning which was twice as big and half the price of the original one. As it turned out, the event was held on one of the hottest days of the year.

2.  I had arranged for three different people to take videos of the event but had totally forgotten about still pictures. To this day, I can’t believe that I had overlooked that. My good friend Brian and his wife Fredda traveled from Florida to attend. While they would normally stay with us when in Syracuse, they stayed overnight at another friend of Brian’s so as not to spoil the surprise. I had never met this friend. On the morning of the wedding, while Brian was putting on his suit, he asked his friend if he and his wife wanted to come. His friend said: “Are you saying that you want me to crash this guy’s wedding?” Brian responded: “You’re pretty good with a camera. Why don’t you come and take pictures?” They came and took many beautiful and memorable pictures. The pictures were very professional looking and filled an entire wedding album.

3.  I had arranged with a radio personality to play the song “Going to the Chapel and We’re Gonna Get Married” by the Dixie Cups while we were traveling to Hendrick’s Chapel. Somehow the timing was off and we never heard it.


The Ruse: 

I always obtained my season tickets to Syracuse football and basketball games from a friend of ours named Sandi. She was a vice president of news releases for the university and was able to purchase our tickets at a discounted price. It would be normal for her to contact me during the summer to alert me to the fact that the tickets had arrived. I had her pick a day when I would not be home so that she could have a scripted conversation with my wife. She asked Sandy what the plans were for our anniversary. Sandy replied that we were going to go out to dinner at The Brewster Inn and stay overnight. Sandi  interrupted her and said “Wow, my new boyfriend’s parents just bought that place”-a total lie. She went on to say: “I’ll bet I can work out a great deal for you. Let me call you back.” She waited about 10 minutes and then called Sandy back. She told Sandy that she had arranged a free dinner and a free night stay. She went on to tell her that the only catch was that she and her boyfriend would have to join us for dinner in order for her to make that happen. How could my wife refuse? Then to finish off the ruse, Sandi called back a few days before the surprise to tell my wife that she had to work that day and might be late. Could we pick up her boyfriend at the airport and then head up to the university to get her? That was the way that I was able to drive all the way to Hendrick’s Chapel at S.U. where the service was being held. It was also a way to pick up my cousin from Las Vegas at the airport (pretending to be the boyfriend) who Sandy would not recognize.


The Event:

It went off without a hitch. Syracuse University had allowed me to station one of my people in the security booth leading up to Hendrick’s Chapel. My mother was supposed to be that person, but just like twenty years before, she was late. So, her duties were taken over by my fraternity brother, Andy. As we approached the booth, she said to me, “Doesn’t that guy look a lot like Andy”. Then she saw the dress. Then she cried. Then she saw our kids in tuxedos coming out from behind a tree. We had left them a half hour before at a neighbor’s house. Then she cried. Then she saw her parents, who she thought were in Arizona. Then she cried. Then all the other guests started to appear. Did I mention that she cried? A number of people then whisked her away to the basement of Hendrick’s Chapel to help her dress. Everyone else was seated by my eight ushers. Alyson was playing the organ, and Heather was singing. The ushers and matron of honor took their places on the pulpit with Scott and Jonathan.  Jonathan was the ring bearer. He looked so proud. Then came, “Here Comes the Bride,” as Sandy’s father walked her down the aisle. People say that I had the biggest “shit-eating grin” on my face. Then Heather sang: “My Special Angel,” and Sandy really lost it. Several people were called upon to speak or read biblical passages. There was the typical recessional, and then off to the reception. There were articles in our local paper as well as letters to the editor. And the wedding was written up in Woman’s Day Magazine, where we were awarded second place in their nationwide search for the best romantic moments.

Gary Philips Head ShotGary Philips is a 77-year-old retired math teacher. He has been married to his wife, Sandy, for 52 years. Together, they have two sons and one granddaughter. He loves retirement. He continues to play basketball, tennis, softball, golf, and long-distance running. He is an accomplished bridge player and has taught that card game on cruise ships for years. He enjoys the theater as a performer and as a patron. He applied to be a “teacher in space” candidate for NASA. In addition to teaching, he coached several sports and umpired professionally for 12 years. During the Covid epidemic, he decided to write his first book-a story about his life. 

10 thoughts on “The Surprise Wedding”

  1. Manijeh Badiozamani

    I loved this detailed account of the author’s surprise wedding. Brought tears to my eyes. Kudos to Gary for arranging and pulling it off.

    1. Thank you so much. The first place winner was a very emotional story. His wife had serious health issues and was in the hospital. I’d have to review the details but, as I recall it, my feelings were that he deserved first place.

  2. A great story and well told – a fast run over the unhappy parts into the fixing—as well as attention to one of my beliefs – the best humor is believable and criticism delivered with kindness.

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