By Will Schick | [email protected]
What’s the secret to a long and happy marriage? According to local couple Mary and Skipp Calvert, the answer is simple: start it off with some mild deception. Months of it.
Mary, who received four proposals from Skipp before finally saying yes, decided that the little lies were a necessary evil to throw him a surprise wedding. Keeping Skipp in the dark, however, was no easy feat.
While Skipp had planned to wed Mary, the day he expected to say his vows was not Dec. 17, 1978. He thought their wedding would be later, or at least on a day they would discuss and agree upon.
Mary and Skipp, who were living in California at the time, first met during a ski trip a couple years earlier, but it wasn’t until the year of their surprise wedding that the two had truly fallen in love with one other, they said.
Mary, who worked as a speech therapist and later started her own private practice after moving to Alexandria, said she has always been fond of surprises.
“The only thing I ever loved [planning] was a surprise birthday, so, I said, ‘I think I’m going to give him a surprise wedding,’” Mary said.
Before diving headfirst into planning an elaborate surprise wedding that would feature an intimate ceremony on an America’s Cup-contending sailboat at a yacht club in Marina Del Ray, California as well as a reception with hundreds of guests at another intricately decorated garden venue, Mary thought it best to first seek approval from Skipp’s mother. To her amazement, Skipp’s mother approved.
“So, I went to his mother immediately and said, ‘What would you think if I gave Skipp a surprise wedding?’ and her words were exactly: ‘He deserves it,’” Mary said.
As Mary pointed out, planning a surprise wedding of this magnitude was no simple feat. How was she going to manage to bring hundreds of their closest family and friends to town without Skipp noticing or catching on?
“My brother … was getting married on Dec. 16. That was a Saturday. And I said, ‘What if we got married on Dec. 17?’ You know, more relatives would come in. … So, I met with my six siblings and asked them what they thought if I gave a wedding the next day. … And they all said it was great,” Mary said.
However, as Mary would soon learn, no plan is fool-proof. On the week of the wedding, Skipp went missing.
“He just disappeared for three days. He didn’t call me,” Mary said.
Skipp had become frustrated with Mary because of her increasing aloofness, which unbeknown to him, was a result of her wedding planning. Mary said that while all their friends and family were concerned that Skipp would not return before their wed-ding, she trusted he would come back in time.“
“I said, ‘Oh, he’ll be back. I have the ring,” Mary said.
When Skipp finally returned to attend Mary’s brother’s wedding, he said he had started to harbor some doubts about his plans to wed Mary. Her family was acting detached and seemed to be avoiding him.
Skipp remembered thinking, “This is not the family. They are not welcoming. … Even my closest friends are avoiding me, and this is uncomfortable and awkward, and I might be making a big mistake.”
Skipp would learn the reason for everybody’s behavior the next day. On the morning of his own wedding, Skipp and Mary headed to the Marina Del Ray Yacht Club for what Skipp thought would be brunch. What Skipp couldn’t understand was why this brunch was so important, so he didn’t rush to get there.
“He decides that on the way to the brunch that we would stop by his mother’s and drop off some sewing that he needed. … She literally [said], ‘What are you doing here?’ [and] takes the pants and shuts the door in his face,” Mary said.
“I thought, ‘My God, this is getting curiouser and curioser,’” Skipp said.
Eventually, they made it to the club. On the way inside, Skipp heard a chorus of voices yell, “Surprise, Skippy! And it’s not your birthday.” Skipp was surprised to see eight of Mary’s best friends and eight of his best friends dressed alike at the entrance to the yacht club.
For Skipp, this wedding was more than just a surprise; it was “shock and awe,” he said.
“The boat, Mary had it decorated like a Rose Bowl float parade. It was decked [out] with Christmas garland, and my dear mother, who is an accomplished violinist, played on the bow,” Skipp said.
Skipp said he was overwhelmed with everything Mary had orchestrated. Even before their wedding, Mary and Skipp’s relationship was full of surprises, drama and literal leaps of faith.
According to Mary, they had their first date on April Fool’s day earlier that same year and weeks later, Skipp surprised Mary by tagging along for a Memorial Day weekend river rafting trip in Northern California that her family went on every year.
Skipp ended up jumping off a two-story bridge into the American River just to impress her.
It was later on this trip that Skipp proposed for the first time. In the ensuing months, Skipp would propose three more times, before Mary finally said “yes.”
“I do not deal gracefully with rejection,” Skipp explained.
At the time, Skipp, worked as a business consultant and was an officer in the U.S. Navy reserves. When he departed that summer aboard a ship for a cruise around the South Pacific, Mary found someone to help her hack into the ship’s communication system with a ham radio, so that she could hear his voice.
Skipp was somewhere off the coast of Papua New Guinea when he was summoned by a sailor to answer the radio. To his surprise, the person on the other end was Mary. In front of all the sailors, Skipp once again proposed to Mary.
“And I said, ‘Over and out,’” Mary said.
Much to Skipp’s surprise, after Mary’s second rejection, when the ship finally pulled into port in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii weeks later, Mary was there, waiting for him.
“We pull in and I learn that she couldn’t get into the base but she [and another friend] … climbed over the fence when they were refused at the gate. And they were pier-side when we pulled in,” Skipp said.
This encouraged Skipp to formulate a new, more elaborate idea for a proposal. He hired a band from his ship to play their song “As Time Goes By” on the balcony of Mary’s condo while he proposed. Mary would later hire the same band to play at their wedding.
Just as Skipp asked Mary for her hand in marriage – for the third time – the owner of the building came bursting in, irate about the loud noise.
In response to Skipp’s proposal, Mary said, “Are you kidding, I’ve just been yelled at from this [person].”
“It was buzzkill,” Skipp admitted.
When Skipp returned to Los Angeles, he confided to one of his friends that he feared that he had struck out.
“You know, three times and you’re out,” Skipp said.
Nonetheless, one night, when Mary was hosting a birthday dinner for her brother David Balfour, Skipp proposed to her in the kitchen.
“And I thought she [was] so emotionally over-wrought,” Skipp said. “[Ac-tually,] she ran to the bathroom to run it down the mirror to make sure it was a real diamond.”
Mary said she did it just to be sure he was serious. Skipp was a jokester, and throughout their 42 years of marriage he has continued to be one.
The couple eventually settled in Alexandria in 1986. They did a brief stint overseas in Naples, Italy where they had their first son, Skipp Calvert IV. A few years later, they had their second son, David, and raised both boys in the city they had grown to cherish.
“We fell in love with Alexandria. We fell in love with Old Town,” Mary said. “You know, just being able to walk everywhere.” I was born and raised in California and never have wanted to go back.”
Mary and Skipp are active members of the Alexandria community, particularly St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. They have also hosted a Turkey Bowl flag football game at Windmill Hill Park for the past 22 years. Mary long served as president of Junior Friends of the Campagna Center, a local non-profit that helps families with early childhood education programs.
The couple is as much in love as they were 42 years ago, though neither can recall exactly how their love came to be.
“I don’t know. [It’s] probably because he was funny and very gregarious,” Mary said.
According to Skipp, there’s always been an intangible something about Mary. She was just different than any person he’d ever met.
“It’s something about her demeanor. … She was kind,” Skipp said of the woman who rejected his multiple marriage proposals, then orchestrated a surprise wedding for him.