CLEARWATER — Surprise. You're getting married next month and the bill is on us.
That was the message Tuesday from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which announced the winners of its "Wedding of a Lifetime" contest.
The winning couple had no idea they were even in the contest, thanks to the friends of the bride who wrote the entry form.
"I'm a little overwhelmed at this point, but I'm happy," said bride Samantha Stahl. "It's like a huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders."
Fiance Kevin Freeland called the event "unbelievable."
It all played out Tuesday afternoon at the Clearwater Police Department, where Stahl works as a dispatcher.
Freeland arrived a few minutes after 4 p.m., thinking Stahl was going to win some type of work-related award.
When he walked through the door, he was faced with a crowd of friends, family and cameras. All eyes were trained on him.
"I thought I walked into the wrong room," Freeland said afterward.
For more than two minutes, the 32-year-old stood with his hands in his pockets.
Finally, Stahl was ushered in. A dispatcher for eight years, the 34-year-old works nights, but co-workers told her to come in early for an efficiency evaluation.
She paused when she walked into the room.
"What's going on?" she said. Then she saw her fiance. "Why are you here?"
Tears soon flowed.
David Yates, the aquarium's CEO, stepped forward and broke the suspense, telling the couple what they had won. The bride and groom can invite 100 guests for a ceremony at the aquarium on Valentine's Day.
Publix will donate the wedding cake. The Sheraton Sand Key will provide space for a reception and a one-night stay at the hotel for the couple. Clothing, wine, flowers and other wedding items will be donated by local businesses.
Freeland and Stahl were among 77 entries in the contest, some from as far away as New York.
The prize came at the perfect time for Freeland and Stahl, who have been struggling to pay for and plan their wedding.
"It couldn't have happened to a better two people," said Tracy Squitieri, one of Stahl's co-workers who entered the couple in the contest. She saw the item about the contest in the St. Petersburg Times on Jan. 8 and decided to enter them.
Stahl and Freeland met on Match.com roughly five years ago. Their relationship progressed, despite serious health problems faced by Freeland.
Freeland had been diagnosed with oral cancer in 2001 and fought through two relapses. He is now six months out of treatment and in remission.
Even as the illness took its toll on Freeland, Stahl never left his side.
On Aug. 30, they became engaged and set a wedding date for October 2009.
But financial setbacks threatened the wedding, and the couple even considered eloping instead of paying thousands of dollars for a large ceremony.
The aquarium's surprise means they don't have to make the choice.
"It's a great organization," Rick Stahl, Samantha's father, said. "They've just helped out two great kids."
Jonathan Abel can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.