Anyone who walked into Horizon Bay Clearwater on Saturday might have thought they were entering a wedding chapel instead of a retirement community. At least for that afternoon, they would be right.
Horizon Bay's lobby was center stage for a wedding vow renewal ceremony for 12 couples, nine of them married more than 50 years.
"This is our third year of hosting a wedding vow renewal ceremony," said Pam Cody, director of community relations at the assisted living facility, who received guests as they entered the door. "We set it up like a wedding and reception, and Publix donates a wedding cake. Everyone looks forward to this day."
Family and friends who walked in the door were greeted by harp music, delicate favor boxes and a wedding book to sign.
The couples waited in the wings until their names were announced, then they were escorted up a white-carpeted aisle to their seats in the front row. Some used walkers, some wheelchairs and some walked side-by-side toward the Rev. L. Tracy Reid, who officiated at the ceremony.
Reid waited in front of French doors overlooking a garden and stood before a trellis adorned with flowers and tulle.
The ceremony, Reid said, was designed to be the first day of a new season of the couples' lives together. The couples clasped hands and waited for their cue to say I do.
Family and friends sat in white folding chairs as soft music played. Some employees stopped to watch the special event that had so many people smiling.
For Lois and Eugene Steele, who have lived at Horizon Bay for about nine months, the ceremony was a pleasant surprise. They have been married the longest of all the couples, 71 years.
"When they told us about it, we wanted to take part in the ceremony," said Lois, 92.
Eugene, 93, still works, serving as director of Eupen Cable in Clearwater.
"My wife and I will be married 72 years in June," he said. "I met Lois at a junior-senior banquet in high school. I got her right out of high school — didn't want to give her any chance of getting away.
"But we didn't get married for four years. I went away to school for four years and came home every weekend to visit her. The week we got married, I graduated from Robert Morris School (University) in Pittsburgh, quit my job in Pittsburgh, got married in Pittsburgh, got the measles in Pittsburgh and moved to Franklin, Pennsylvania, and got a new job — all in one week. We were married on June 26, 1941."
When asked what they believe is the key to longevity in marriage, Eugene said, "Patience."
"I'll double that," Lois said.
Joan and William "Bill" Tidd tied the knot 62 years ago and looked forward to this year's ceremony.
"We've lived here about two and a half years and took part in this occasion last year, too," said Joan, 83. "It's beautiful."
Bill Tidd bought his wife a special bouquet of flowers for the ceremony and smiled when he talked about her.
"We met in Cleveland, Ohio, on a blind date," said Bill, 86. "I worked with her sister. When I saw Joan the first time, I thought, now that's a good-looking woman."
Patricia and Thomas Laidlaw have been married 58 years and said common friends drew them together.
"We met in Hudson County, New Jersey, and our four wonderful children contributed to our good marriage," Thomas said.
May and Walter Maks will be married 52 years next month and live in Dunedin. Though they renewed their vows on a cruise ship after 25 years of marriage, they read about the Horizon Bay ceremony in the newspaper and decided to take the facility up on its invitation to host anyone in the community married 50 years or more.
"We met at a dance in Huntsville, Canada," May said. "We had just graduated and I had come from Britain."
"It was love at first sight," Walter said.
To what do they attribute their long marriage?
"Compromise," Walter said.
"Patience," May said. "And we discuss things openly. We don't lie to each other. I think being truthful is one of the most important things, even if it hurts."
Virginia and Elmer Scott were 18 and 25, respectively, when they met at a dance in Louisville, Ky. From that day on, he showed up to take her for coffee, every day. They've been married 57 years.
For the last two years, the Scotts have lived at Horizon Bay, only a few minutes away from their daughter. Elmer presented his wife with white flowers before the ceremony. When asked how he felt about renewing their vows, he said, "I can hardly wait."
A professional photographer snapped couples' pictures after the ceremony. A reception awaited the couples and their guests in the library, complete with white tablecloths, silver cake knives and champagne flutes. With a taste of champagne, couples toasted their partners and savored chocolate-covered strawberries, petit fours and a slice of a two-tiered wedding cake.
Elmer Scott gently held his wife's arm and said, smiling, that saying "Yes dear" was the reason for their long marriage.
Then he added, "What's special is knowing she's here with me every morning when I wake up."