“Happily Ever Laughter”

Published in the Dunkirk Observer and on observertoday.com.

Every long-married couple will tell you that a successful marriage takes patience, forgiveness, understanding, and hard work. They might also tell you that it takes a lot of laughter. Some couples found that out early – on their wedding days, actually. And these stories go beyond your run-of-the-mill embarrassing Best Man speech or too-tipsy bridesmaid.


The year was 1977, and the month was January in Western New York. For anyone with a long memory, these facts alone spell trouble-but Bedsaida “Betty” Echevarria and her groom-to-be Juan Pagan would find out just how much trouble they would face on their winter wedding day during the infamous Blizzard of ’77.

The government declared a state of emergency. Factories, schools, stores, and the mail service shut down. Roads were closed and emergency shelters were set up along busy routes. But as the snow fell, Betty continued to get ready for her wedding at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Dunkirk. After all, the biggest challenge was over – finding a partner to love for the rest of her life. So she and Juan rolled up their sleeves and made their wedding happen, despite mounting obstacles brought on by the storm.

Those obstacles included Juan’s family getting stuck 30 miles from Dunkirk, the couple’s wedding cake being MIA, the wedding party left without their rented tuxedos, an unheated church, and a DJ who couldn’t make the drive to the reception.

“We didn’t think we were going to make it, with everything going against us,” Juan admitted of the whole fiasco.

But love conquers all, right?

Juan and his groomsmen battled 50 mph winds to pick up the manager of the tuxedo shop at her home and drive her to the store, where they stripped mannequins and mixed and matched different-colored suits until they were at least clothed-the groom in a white suit; the best man, Robert Hernandez, in a black tuxedo; Harry Echevarria, the bride’s cousin, in a black tuxedo and red shirt; and the late George Pagan, the groom’s brother, in a brown tuxedo. The ring bearer wore his own khaki pants and a brown jacket. Generations from now, if this story has been lost, their family members might see those wedding pictures, shrug, and chalk that color scheme up to the ’70s.

Juan and company made it to the church, albeit 30 minutes after the ceremony was scheduled to start. After 20 hours of being stranded, his New Jersey-based family members also arrived, and the wedding was on!

“Normally the bride makes the groom wait,” Betty quipped of that day. While she waited for her soon-to-be husband at the church, Betty joked with her mother and posed for pictures in which both women point to their watches and smile.

Though most of the men in the wedding party had to deal with pins pricking them throughout the ceremony due to makeshift tailoring, the women didn’t fare much better. Anyone without a parka and ski boots would have shivered in that unheated church, and in thin dresses designed for beauty instead of warmth, shiver they did. Remember, too, that Catholic ceremonies aren’t known for their brevity! Perhaps the “Amens” at the end of that service were particularly enthusiastic.

For reception music, the couple ransacked their own apartment for records and 8-tracks.

“We had to make our own music,” Juan said.

Small miracles happened. The cake magically appeared at the then-Puerto Rican Social Club, located on Central Avenue in Dunkirk. The rest of the guests, who hadn’t made it to the church, found their way to the reception and stomped off their boots in time to celebrate with the newlyweds. Music, cake, friends, and young love: all the ingredients for a great wedding were present. So what if all of this happened during a record-breaking blizzard?

The Rev. Kenneth Menge, who performed the Pagans’ wedding ceremony, told them that day “if you made it through that storm, you can make it through any storm in life.”

Richard and Tammy (Panek) Winder: Aug. 25, 1984

Another couple kept their guests waiting on their wedding day, but instead of an epic storm, the cause of the delay was a smoking limousine.

Tammy waited that day with all of the nervous excitement of a young bride: she’d been coiffed, perfumed, and fitted into her wedding dress. She held a beautiful bouquet and knew the man of her dreams waited for her at the altar at Holy Trinity Church in Dunkirk. All she had left to do was get to the church, which should have been no problem. After all, they had rented a limo to get her there on time and in style. She was all smiles.

Until the limousine’s hood poured steam into the hot August air like an angry dragon ready to torch a brave knight-or in this case, a distressed damsel.

Like the Pagans, though, Tammy rallied. She gathered her dress’s train and hitched a ride, arriving only about 15 minutes late for her wedding. Let’s hope Richard takes comfort in the fact that it was a hot engine, not cold feet, that made his bride late that day.

Paul and Theresa (Barone) Leone and Jim and Jan (Meyer) Ellman: May 29, 1965

The Leones and the Ellmans were married on the same day in May of 1965 – and on the same street. The stage was set for a comedy of errors, but this play had two happy endings.

The Leones’ wedding was at Holy Trinity Church, which at that time was located on Ruggles Street in Dunkirk. The Ellmans’ wedding was at Sacred Heart Church, also on Ruggles Street. Paul Leone’s mother, Anna, lived in Angola, and wasn’t too familiar with the area. She made it to Dunkirk, found Ruggles Street, saw a church that was obviously filling up with wedding guests, and assumed she had found her son’s wedding ceremony.

She was wrong. She walked into the church, expecting to see her son beaming on the altar and family members filling up the pews. Instead, she saw strangers, and made a graceful exit. She found the correct church, and told her son what happened. The couple had a good laugh, and became friends with the Ellmans. After that, the two couples celebrated their joint anniversary together.

Surely, the “Remember when my mother crashed your wedding?” story remained a favorite for many years.

Tony and Betty (Maziarz) Arcoraci: Sept. 4, 1965

Betty and Tony Arcoraci were married at St. Hedwig’s Church in Dunkirk, and unlike these other couples, they got hitched without a hitch. The trouble came after the wedding, on their honeymoon.

The Arcoracis stayed at a Howard Johnson motel in Hamburg, and, when the clerk handed them a room key, they accepted it without question, got their bags, and were ready to turn in for the night.

But when Tony fitted the key to the lock and opened the door, he didn’t find a neatly made-up bed with an “Enjoy your stay!” card propped against plump pillows. He found a bed already occupied by a sleeping couple. He left the room quicker than an un-tipped bellboy and told the apologetic clerk that “people get shot for less!”

Charles R. and Margie (Fuentes-Perez) Dye: July 4, 2009

Like the Arcoracis’ night, the trouble for the Dyes didn’t happen until after the wedding was over and they arrived back at their home. Margie had visions of being carried across the threshold, a long-standing tradition that, among other things, wards off bad luck and symbolizes a fresh start together as a couple. But that didn’t happen.

“We realized we were locked out of our house as soon as I got out of the car!” Margie said.

They weren’t ready to laugh about it that night.

“We were both frustrated at the time because we were so tired,” she said. “I wanted to stay at a hotel.”

But Chuck had another idea.

“It was definitely Chuck’s idea to break in through a window,” Margie said. “I didn’t want to go through the window.”

Good humor prevailed. Instead of carrying his bride in through the doorway, he pushed her, wedding dress and all, in through a window.

They laugh about it now.

“We really wish the photographer would have been around at the time!” Margie said. “The funniest thing is we actually found the house key the next morning underneath the seat in the car!”

Joel and Rebecca (Schwab) Cuthbert: Sept. 7, 2014

This story is my own, but has the same ending as the others: Happy.

I admit that I like to do things my way. I even prefer self check-out so that I can pack my own groceries. Nine times out of ten, when people ask if they can help me, I say no (unless it’s my sister, then she’s the boss). But here’s the trouble: not everything will always go the way I want.

More than a year before my wedding, I ordered what I thought was my dream dress from a company in China. The dress came, and was a horrible fit. The company wouldn’t take it back, and I never did get to talk to a customer service representative. Thinking I had months until my wedding, I ordered a similar dress from another company, also overseas. This one fit worse, and was covered in sequins. “I can fix this,” I thought. I took the sequins off, and worked with a local tailor, who did her best to piece together parts from the two dresses. I ordered vintage lace to trim the neck and sleeves. It didn’t match. I ordered more. It still didn’t work. The Franken-dress just wouldn’t live, no matter how many times we zapped it.

With only weeks to go until my wedding, I brought the dresses, now reduced to heaps of indistinguishable lace, to another seamstress. She looked at them, shook her head, and told me she couldn’t promise anything. So, as a last-ditch effort, I drove by myself on a Wednesday afternoon to the David’s Bridal by the McKinley Mall to look at the sale rack. At this point, I’d already spent over $500 on the two awful dresses.

A sales clerk approached me, giving me the standard “Can I help you?” script. When I opened my mouth, I started to cry. I managed to choke out “No dress” and “Wedding in three weeks.” When she asked if I’d brought anyone with me, I cried a little harder. This was not how wedding dress shopping was supposed to go.

But I decided, as I stood beneath fluorescent lights with hopeful brides and their mothers all around me, that crying doesn’t solve problems. I explained that I liked vintage-style dresses. I explained that I had a very limited budget. I think I used the word “now” a lot. I found a beautiful dress with a lace back for $326, two sizes too big, and called the seamstress from the parking lot. She said “If I fix one of the old dresses, it’ll be a lot of work. If I make this new dress smaller, it will be a lot of work. It’s the same to me. Do what your heart says. Maybe a fresh start will be good.”

I bought the dress and brought it to the seamstress. I picked it up from her days before my wedding. It fit perfectly. She asked if I wanted the old dresses back. She tailors and then donates wedding dresses to a charity, though, and the proceeds help human trafficking victims try to rebuild their lives. So I told her to keep them-let my bad memories turn into good memories for someone else.

For my dress, the third time was the charm. If only I had found a husband that easily!

The End

P.S. The wedding dress seems so important-you think it has to be just right. Now, though, my “perfect” dress is lying in a rumpled heap in a hamper, almost forgotten-but, even as I type this, my husband calls to me from the next room, asking me what I want to do for dinner, offering to wash the dishes.

The tears I shed over one day’s outfit were wasted. I could have gotten married in a thrift store sundress, and the outcome would be the same: I got to marry Joel Cuthbert.

Snow melts. Food is eaten and forgotten. Guests remember how much fun they had dancing, but not who pressed “play” on the stereo. A wedding is one day, and then the rest of your life starts. So make sure it’s your best friend boosting you in through the window.

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