Back in 2016, Commissioner John Gardner made a bet with his minister, Amy Probst of Mafair United Methodist Church, that he would marry more couples than she did. Since that time, Amy has married three couples while John has officiated at more than 550 weddings. During John’s first term as a Sullivan County Commissioner, his goal was 10 couples because it was just “a good round number,” John said with a smile. Word spread of his service on social media, by word of mouth, and from county clerk referrals, and John’s making “I Do” come true for a plethora of couples has risen dramatically.
Sometimes John works with couples before the ceremony to learn religious references that they want, to determine whether they desire a contemporary or traditional wedding, and to learn the theme that the couple has in mind. “I customize the wedding to include readings and vows that reflect the theme that they plan to use,” John added. “I give each couple the same kind of wedding that I would give to Prince Charles and Princess Diana if they want it.” If Commissioner Gardner spends time with the couple in advance of the ceremony he gets to know and understand them better so that he can mold the wedding ceremony to fit their personality.
“I ask things like how they met, what they like to do, and what they do when spending quality time together,” John continued. “I pick up on little things and incorporate this into their ceremony. During the actual wedding, they’re hearing my work for the first time which is my special gift to the couple.”
Each wedding has its own story and John could easily write a book from all of the stories he’s gathered in his journey with couples seeking wedded bliss. One of the most touching stories that John recalls is the older couple who had been engaged in 1966 but never got married. They each took different paths in life but their immediate families remained in contact. In fact, the bride’s grandmother had told her for 50 years that this was the man she should have married. When fate brought the gentleman home and the bride-to-be as well, they became engaged again in 2016.
“For me to be on that porch with that wonderful couple and their families to celebrate their 50-year love story that culminated in a wedding was very touching for me,” John shared. “This couple taught me that everything is not in our time but in God’s time.”
Another couple approached John about getting married a few years ago, but they were never ready to get married at the same time. “The lady would be ready and the man would say he needed to wait. Then he’d be ready and she would want to delay the ceremony. Finally, they called me as she lay in the hospital with terminal cancer. I married them and she passed away three days later,” John said. “And the way she looked at him during the ceremony is the way a blushing, 20-year-old bride looks at the groom in a big, fancy wedding.”
If you ask Commissioner John Gardner what makes a successful marriage, this newlywed himself says that one of the keys to success is communication. “If you lose communication, good or bad, you’re creating a wall that’s hard to climb over. You’ve got to be good friends first and really be in love with the person that you want to spend the rest of your life with.”
John marries many blended families and works very hard to include all of the children. His wife of two months, Debra added, “John talks to the children and makes them feel special and a part of the wedding ceremony.”
“I’ll ask the young kids if they’re getting married today and then sometimes I ask them to help me with the ceremony,” John said with a big smile. “At the end of the ceremony, I’ll usually bend down and tell them to say ‘You may now kiss the bride’ which makes everyone smile,” he said.
For their own wedding two months ago, John and Debra chose the Historic Deery Inn in Blountville. “We wanted a small, intimate ceremony,” Debra shared, “because we’ve seen over the years the significance of getting married in a small venue with the people that are very special to you.”
John doesn’t have a fee for his services and prefers to “meet people where they are with their finances,” he adds. “People need to know that a wedding is not about what you have on or where you are. It’s about the promise between two people who are in love and want to spend their life together.”
Making ‘I Do” come true has been a fascinating journey for Commissioner John Gardner. And with his diligent work to create specialized vows, he’ll be an integral part of the lives of many people for years to come.
Paid for by the candidate, John Gardner.