Under cobalt blue skies in the middle of May, dozens of friends and family from Charleston and far beyond gathered for an elegant, milestone birthday party in a horse barn tucked into the rolling hills of Greenbrier County.
Instead, to the great surprise of almost everyone in attendance, they found themselves at a wedding.
“It was just a party for my 50th birthday,” said Lera VanMeter, the birthday girl-turned-bride.
“We started planning the birthday, and I walked downstairs into Mark’s man cave, and he said, ‘Well, what do you think about getting married at your party? Everybody’s going to be there.’ And I said, ‘Huh. Well, I guess that’d be all right.’”
VanMeter, a Kanawha County family court judge, and Mark Kelley, a partner in the Charleston law firm Ray Winton & Kelley, had been together for 12 years. He gave her a ring two years ago, but they never got around to setting a date.
They thought it would be fun to surprise everyone — but it was necessary to clue in a few people, including Lera’s brother, who lives in Japan, and Charleston Judge Joanna Tabit, who would officiate the wedding.
“When Mark came into my office about a month or so [beforehand], he said, ‘You know what, we’re going to do this and you can’t tell anybody,’” Tabit said. “And I was just so touched that they came up and told me.”
The party was held at Swift Level Farm in Lewisburg, West Virginia in what Lera and her mother, Linda Van Meter, said was the perfect venue.
“It was a very nice place, very appropriate,” Linda said. “Her birthday party was in a barn and Lera grew up riding horses, so it was very appropriate in that sense.”
White tables adorned with pink and blue flowers lined the aisle between the horse stalls of the barn, and sparkling gold lights hung from each stall door.
At around 6 in the evening on May 18, family and friends began arriving by shuttles to the farm while Mark, Lera and the few others who knew about the wedding waited eagerly to let everyone in on the big secret.
“We didn’t really do anything necessarily special because it was the wedding. It was really just the party,” Lera said.
First, there were a few surprises for the secret bride and groom.
An active advocate for rescue animals, she had asked for no birthday gifts. Thinking they were honoring her milestone birthday, though, friends organized a surprise donation to her favorite charity, the Boone Animal Rescue Coalition, raising more than $3,000 for the nonprofit.
“I’m never speechless, and I was in tears and speechless,” Lera said.
Tabit also surprised the couple and their guests with T-shirts specially made for the occasion, dubbed “Lerapalooza,” which listed all the places guests had journeyed from.
“And then one of my other girlfriends, in conjunction with that, had gotten hats,” Lera said. “I didn’t know about any of that, so that was fun.”
After the donation and shirt unveiling, it was time to announce the big surprise. Everyone gathered around the couple as Mark announced the second reason everyone was invited that day.
According to Lera, he said, “So a couple people have started some rumors that there’s something else going on this weekend and we’ve worked very hard to stamp those rumors out. However, they’re true.”
As guests began to lean in for explanation, he continued.
“So if everybody will freshen up their drinks and meet us under the tree in 10 minutes, we’re going to get married,” he said, to the audible gasps of those in attendance.
Including the bride’s mother.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Linda said. “We like Mark very much and we’re glad they got married.”
There was great excitement as family and friends congratulated them and everyone eagerly stepped outside into the bright green pasture to witness the ceremony.
Tabit said that even though she’s done hundreds of weddings, this was the most special.
“Even though I’ve done a ton of them, I know my voice cracked and I was getting a little emotional at the ceremony because they both are good friends and it was an honor to be able to do that,” she said.
The ceremony was followed by an evening of fun with karaoke, food and drinks, and a fire pit.
“If you ask me, my karaoke was phenomenal, but if you ask all of my friends and everybody that was there how they thought the karaoke was, and my singing, not so much, because I think I sing a whole lot better than they do,” Lera said.
“It was a beautiful wedding weekend and it was so much fun to celebrate,” Tabit said. “Everybody there was celebrating people that they love who love each other and celebrating Lera on her birthday, so it was an added plus to be able to celebrate the wedding along with her milestone birthday.”
“Lera and Mark I think are very suited to each other,” Linda said. “They have a loving relationship and I’m glad to see it continuing in the marriage.”
“Every time I think about it I still smile because it was just a fun evening and I married my best friend and he’s the love of my life,” Lera said. “It was still a really fun way to do it. If I had to do it, I’d do it all over again.”