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Cottage Grove couple weds at county fair as man faces terminal cancer

Betty Joyce and William Smith Sr. seal their vows with a kiss after marrying during the Washington County Fair last weekend. They made a spur of the moment decision to sign up for a free wedding because Smith has terminal colon cancer. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente2 / 4
After 11 1/2 years together, Betty Joyce and William Smith Sr. were married Saturday, Aug. 4, at the Washington County Fair. Smith has untreatable colon cancer, and Joyce said marriage will guarantee they will be buried together someday. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente3 / 4
William Smith Sr. slips a ring on Betty Joyce's finger during their wedding. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente4 / 4

Not knowing how much longer they have together, Betty Joyce and William Smith Sr. ensured they will be by each other's side for eternity.

As relatives and emotionally touched onlookers surrounded them, the Cottage Grove couple exchanged vows Saturday in a bittersweet wedding ceremony at the Washington County Fair.

Together for years but just not as husband and wife, Joyce and Smith hurriedly chose to wed outdoors at the fairgrounds because Smith has conceded a three-year fight against colon cancer.

"They're out of treatments," Joyce said after their ceremony. Chemotherapy and surgery could not wipe out Smith's cancer. "It's terminal."

Joyce had worried about the future if they were not married.

"I wanted to be sure we were buried together, and nobody can prevent that now," Joyce, 54, said of her 66-year-old husband.

Any sadness about the reason for their wedding, however, was overshadowed by their embrace of a no-frills ceremony that had its share of light-hearted surprises and unscripted moments.

Little planning needed

Joyce and Smith have been with each other 11 1/2 years, and they first moved in together in an apartment in Newport. A few years later they moved to their Cottage Grove home on Homestead Avenue near 70th Street. They talked of marriage but had not planned a wedding.

But with Smith facing terminal cancer, Joyce decided to inquire about arranging a marriage just four days before they stood for their vows. They would be one of numerous couples, who, for a variety of reasons, took advantage of the new feature at the fair: free weddings and vow renewals, officiated by Washington County District Court Judge Greg Galler.

The low-budget, laid-back approach meant there was little to plan. They got a marriage license. They had to buy rings, but Joyce already had a diamond given to her by Smith a few years ago when they started talking about getting married someday. In the rush to prepare for the ceremony, Joyce forgot the diamond, but the wedding went on.

Joyce chose a small bouquet of pink roses and daisies and Smith was pinned with a boutonniere. Standing with the couple was Joyce's best friend as well as Smith's son. There were no formal dresses or suits in the wedding party or among the audience of more than a dozen relatives.

Joyce and Smith wore blue jeans.

"I went and bought a new top (and) I did some laundry," Joyce joked later of her last-minute preparations.

The bride and groom were given two options for the wording that would be used by Galler in the ceremony. They reviewed their options.

"I like No. 1," Joyce said moments before the ceremony. That was fine with Smith.

After gathering beneath a trellis near the master gardeners' exhibit, Smith, who uses a wheelchair, rose to stand alongside his bride.

Smith was wearing an Army cap until midway through the ceremony when Joyce reached over and removed it, eliciting smiles from family and Galler.

There were chuckles midway through the ceremony when Galler was briefly drowned out by a tractor that rumbled by.

"It wouldn't be the fair without machinery," he said.

Within a few short minutes, Joyce and Smith they had looked each other in the eyes, exchanged vows and sealed their commitment to one another with a quick kiss.

"We're married!" Joyce proclaimed afterward.

Their story touched fair organizers. Margot Rheinberger, who coordinated the new wedding feature this year, said she anticipated fun weddings or spur of the moment weddings done to save money.

Then Joyce called.

"I thought, 'Oh, wow,' Rheinberger said. "This is so neat that they have this opportunity. It was sad too, but it was really nice."

Washington County Commissioner Autumn Lehrke, who lives in Cottage Grove, said the couple's story was moving and she presented them with a commissioner award moments after their wedding.

After the wedding, Joyce and Smith sat down to talk and get a bite to eat with relatives. Smith said the ceremony wasn't how he had envisioned their wedding, but given their circumstances the last-minute plan worked out.

"We're just happy," Joyce said.

The married couple planned to spend part of the afternoon wandering the fairgrounds with family before calling it a day. Joyce said their wedding day was special, but "regular life" awaited them.

"I've got to go home and go grocery shopping," she said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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