She’s helped 400 couples tie knot at Stanford

Article appeared on February 8, 2010 in page E-1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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It’s 7:30 on a Saturday morning, and Mary Gallagher is getting dressed to attend a wedding. In fact, she’ll attend four weddings before the day is out. For her, it’s a pretty typical Saturday.

Gallagher is the last person brides see before they walk down the aisle and the first person to greet new husbands and wives. She’s the wedding coordinator at Stanford University’s Memorial Church, and in her 4 1/2 years on the job, she’s helped almost 400 couples tie the knot. She’ll be adding one more to that tally this Valentine’s Day weekend, but she admits that Valentine’s Day is a bigger day for marriage proposals than weddings.

Gallagher grew up in Palo Alto and earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Stanford in 1975. Though never married herself, she helps couples live out the day of their dreams and does it all in two-hour blocks so the church will be ready in time for the next couple’s big day.

After I graduated from Stanford, I worked in advertising and public relations. I worked for Regis McKenna, and we had the Apple and Intel accounts. After that, I worked for Allied Arts doing fundraising for nonprofits. I did a lot of event planning in that job. I always loved event planning, ever since I was a little girl throwing tea parties. When Stanford called saying they’d like to talk to me about becoming their wedding coordinator, I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to get back to my university.

Weddings are such joyful occasions, and I feel so lucky to have this job. In our high season, which is usually from April to October or November, we book up to four weddings on a Saturday: 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

On Saturdays, my motto is “rise, shine and run.” We make the church available one hour before the ceremony for the wedding party, vendors, musicians and photographers to come in. After the ceremony, couples are allowed to take photos in the church, and at the same time, the next wedding party is coming in to get ready in the bride’s room.

You have to be incredibly organized to do this job. I wear many hats; part director, part coach, part counselor and part magician. I do the work behind the curtain with my team – the clergy and the sextons, the organist, the sound tech. I make sure the marriage license gets signed and the doors are open at the right moment for the bride and groom to come back down the aisle. Small but important stuff that most people involved probably aren’t even thinking about.

I think Stanford is such a popular venue because everyone is welcome – all faiths and all backgrounds. We do blessings for civil unions and same-gender couples. And Memorial Church is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen.

It’s a myth that you have to book weddings here five years in advance. People say, “Even if you don’t have a fiance, go book a date.” That’s not true. Right now, we’re only booking 2010 and 2011, and we still have a lot of openings. The only thing is that you have to have a connection to Stanford.

The great-granddaughter of Herbert Hoover got married here. It was such an honor and a privilege to work on her wedding. But every couple has their own unique story.

I remember, when I was very new in this job, we had a wedding with 1,000 guests. The bride was from Kuwait and the groom was from New Delhi, and they had guests come in from all over the world. The women were all dressed in their traditional saris, and the church was a sea of colors.

Another couple decided that they wanted to get married privately and have a big party with friends and family later. They invited their parents to Stanford under the pretense of showing them where they might get married months down the road. The bride snuck away and changed into her mother’s old wedding gown, and the groom snuck out and put on his tux, and they had the wedding right then. I can still remember the parents’ faces. They were just overwhelmed.

I have so many photos of weddings, I can’t display them all in my office. I try to rotate them because they all bring back such great memories. One of the gifts of the job is that I still get Christmas cards and the most thoughtful, gracious notes from couples I’ve worked with. I get pictures of their firstborns. I love it.

Of course, just when you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t. I’ve had people ask if dogs can be their ring bearers; I’ve had family members or wedding parties not speaking to each other. Once, the church sexton I was working with nearly fainted. But at the end of the day, very few people are aware of any side issues going on, and that’s the way it should be. I tell couples not to get caught up in the wedding tsunami, but to focus on the beauty of the ceremony and remember what the day is all about.

E-mail Kathryn Roethel at kroethel@sfchronicle.com.