After a messy divorce ended her first marriage, Roberta O’Key swore she would never marry again.
That was 18 weddings ago. Chris O’Key changed her mind.
The O’Keys remarry every year in a new place, globetrotting to Scotland, the Bahamas and Maui to name a few.
The idea blossomed out of their first honeymoon in San Francisco, when Roberta made an offhand comment wishing they could duplicate newlywed bliss every year.
“Why can’t we?” Chris asked.
So they have.
Roberta, 52, anticipates the wedding each year, even though they do not stick to their actual Dec. 6 anniversary. Friday they will celebrate their 17th anniversary.
“It has been an incredible ride and incredible joy,” Chris, 49, says. “Every time feels like the first time.”
What began as romantic jet-setting in gown and tux became a source of hope for the future about 10 years ago when Roberta had an allergic reaction to an antibiotic, resulting in a damaged immune system, 30 different operations and minor memory loss.
They keep the ceremony small — just them, a pastor and the occasional photographer — but they do not skimp on wedding essentials. Roberta has picked 18 dresses and wears as many of the 18 rings as she can fit on her fingers every day. As they stand before a pastor, they share new, personal vows and read out of 1 Corinthians 13 to remind each other that “love is patient; love is kind.”
Every year, they find a bouquet unique to the location and cut a miniature wedding cake with pineapple filling. If they can find one, they enjoy carriage rides to the post-ceremony dinner and usually take a photograph with the pastor before they leave.
But that’s where predictability ends. They tell the stories together, Chris filling in when Roberta’s memory falters, Roberta hauling dusty, framed photos from back rooms.
TO HAVE AND TO HOLD
When Roberta and Chris met almost 20 years ago at The Maverick, in its original location at 22nd Street and Swan Road, both thought the other looked out of place.
Roberta, coming from a professional women’s event with girlfriends, stood out in a sparkly dress. Chris, in work boots from Walmart, was lacking in country swag.
“He didn’t even have on cowboy boots, so we came to the conclusion that he was a pilot from Davis-Monthan,” Roberta says. “My girlfriends said, ‘Go over there and ask him.’”
It turned out that Chris worked for Pima County, not the Air Force, as a systems analyst. But after surviving an interrogation by Roberta’s girlfriends, the women deemed him acceptable.
“They left me there with him, and we closed down the bar,” Roberta says, still a little indignant about her abandonment. “He gave me a ride home, which was very out of the ordinary for me to do anything like that, but there was something about him that was special.”
About one year later, Roberta and Chris said “I do” at DeGrazia’s Mission in the Sun. For both, it was a second marriage.
“We found out how not to do things,” Chris says. “Now we’re going to do things right.”
For that first wedding, they celebrated in simplicity rather than extravagance. Friends pitched in, bringing extra chairs for the ceremony and helping Roberta cook for the at-home reception.
“They almost set the house on fire,” Chris says, with a pointed look at his wife.
Roberta does not deny it, but she grins while telling the story. She treasures all of it.
“I wasn’t really paying attention,” she says. “All of the sudden the counter was on fire.”
Despite the mishap, the newlyweds left their friends and family at the house to stay a night at the Lodge at Ventana Canyon before honeymooning in San Francisco.
They crashed a Christmas party at the resort and joined the dancing, still wearing their wedding attire. Everyone thought it was their party.
“And they were taking pictures of us, saying, ‘What a wonderful wedding! What a wonderful ceremony,’” Chris says, laughing.
So they have one every year.
FOR BETTER OR WORSE
In the early years, the O’Keys did little budgeting for their weddings, relying on Roberta’s successful career as an investment banker.
They married in a Scottish turret, serenaded by a personal bagpiper and dined in a private enclave on the beach in Maui.
For the fifth wedding, the O’Keys married in San Antonio, tacking the romantic getaway onto one of Roberta’s business trips. They said “I do” again at the River Walk, in a closed off hotel courtyard, lit by candles. Later, they took a carriage ride to the Alamo.
“Some of the places we go to because I’d always wanted to go there...” Roberta says. “I wanted to go to San Antonio so if we ever fought, I could say, ‘Remember the Alamo!’”
They pick other locations for the names, scoping out the best spot for a wedding after arriving. They have renewed their vows at Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride, Colo. and Love Beach in the Bahamas. In Sundance, Utah, after hopping off of a chairlift, they found a sign noting two ski trails: Maverick and Wedding Ring. They came back to the signs dressed as bride and groom.
On these anniversary trips, the O’Keys leave daily life at home. They decided early on not to talk about work or kids.
Roberta’s sons, A.J. Stangl, 25, and Rezen Stangl-O’Key, 22, never went on the trips. They stayed home with Roberta’s mother, which Rezen remembers as a treat.
“I didn’t understand why they got to go to all these fun places and I got to stay behind, but when I got older, it was something unique.” Rezen says. “I really like that my parents do that. It takes them away from the real world and takes them to a happier time.”
IN SICKNESS AND HEALTH
Many of the weddings risked being canceled as the family wrestled with the spiraling effects of a damaged immune system on Roberta’s health.
Chris took over as the wedding trip planner — a stressful task for a guy, he notes.
“Every step of the way I kept my fingers crossed that I didn’t mess it up,” he says.
During Roberta’s first stays in the hospital, Chris spent many days huddled with a doctor, informed over and again that his wife would not live through the night.
She did every time, but her life changed.
“I’ve always identified myself through my work,” Roberta says. “I even had my own Popsicle business when I was 9 years old. My whole world stopped, but my faith has been able to bring me through it. Hope is so important. It gives me hope that, ‘Oh, we’re going to have another wedding.’ That helps when I’m down.”
As Baptists, the O’Keys place significant emphasis on the officiant at their ceremonies, interviewing local pastors before traveling to the wedding destination.
Sickness has kept them Tucson-bound twice, allowing the husband of one of Roberta’s longtime friends — one of her girlfriends that night at The Maverick — to marry them. Larry Munguia, the senior pastor of the S.O.B.E.R. Project where the O’Keys attended church at the time, remembers the simple wedding at the Lodge at Ventana Canyon as a “parking lot wedding.”
“I just remember laughing a lot; it was fun,” Munguia says. “It creates a new threshold to anticipate newness in their lives. It’s not the same old yawning. … Everything they had gone through brought them to that place again.”
TO LOVE AND CHERISH
Even when Roberta stopped working and the couple faced skyrocketing health costs, the O’Keys made the deliberate decision to continue their annual weddings.
The weddings have a more frugal spin these days. Roberta shops for her dresses with a price-wary eye — she found one at Savers, brand new with tags, for $17.
When they celebrate their 20th wedding in 2015, they will stay in Tucson to share it with friends and family for the first time since their initial walk down the aisle in 1996.
Much has changed since then, but some things remain constant.
“He is as romantic at heart as I am and a good man of faith,” Roberta says. “That has helped me get through all of the adversity we have been through.”
Chris finishes for her.
“You have to have something to look forward to, and she looks forward to these weddings,” he says.
Roberta grins at him, waving both hands, rings stacked on every finger: “Look, I get rings every year.”
Together, despite everything, they laugh.