Before the coronavirus started making its way through New Jersey, Julie Samuels and Joe Hillyer had planned a simple town hall wedding with just witnesses, followed by an intimate dinner at home.
It wasn't to be. Weeks before the civil ceremony scheduled for March 27 in Montclair, N.J., friends and family members started petitioning to join them. A bigger party took shape. But that wasn't in the cards, either. What was in store for the couple on their wedding day was a crash course in how a community can rally together in the name of love.
Samuels, 53, and Hillyer, 58, met on the eHarmony dating site in 2007. He had been married and divorced. She had been engaged once, before graduating from New York Law School in 1996, but spent her 20s and 30s in a string of unhappy relationships with men.
"Basically, I had a terrible, terrible track record of being attracted to the kind of guy who tells you what you want to hear," said Samuels, an intellectual property and commercial transactions lawyer who grew up in Los Angeles. Her parents, Lois and Stu Samuels, live in Palm Desert, Calif.; her younger brother, Joshua Samuels, lives in Culver City, Calif.
The smooth talkers she was meeting came courtesy of the internet, where Samuels was establishing herself as an online dating pioneer. "I probably did Match.com version one, in the '90s," she said. "I jumped on JDate right when it started in 1997, and I was also doing something called It's Just Lunch in the '90s." When eHarmony started in 2000, she was an early adopter.
STARTING TO WEAR THIN
It was 2006 before her tolerance for insincere men starting to wear thin. That year, a group of Samuels' friends did a background check on a new boyfriend whose past sounded suspicious. "He just spun a yarn, and I totally fell for it," Samuels said. "It took me a long time to get over that."
She still wasn't quite over it when, in April 2007, she met Hillyer, who was then living in Rutherford, N.J. Both had decided before they met for a drink at the MercBar, in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, that if they had a lackluster date that night, they would give up eHarmony and all online dating.
Hillyer, the director of logistics and postal affairs at Scholastic, wasn't necessarily harboring trust concerns, as Samuels was. He was just skeptical about the efficacy of online dating. After his divorce in 1998, "I had had a date or two that didn't work out, and so I said, 'I'm done,'" he said. "And then I saw Julie's picture, and I said, 'All right, one last time.'"
Both felt the rush of attraction that night over drinks. Conversation flowed from Hillyer's side hustle as a songwriter and folk and bluegrass musician to their mutual love of theater and acting. But for Samuels, a twinge of suspicion was still tugging at the corners of what was an otherwise perfect evening. On the one hand, she said, "I thought, 'Gosh, my mom was right -- when you meet the right person, you just know.'" But on the other hand, "I kept feeling like maybe he really wasn't this interesting man of integrity and there was an ulterior motive," she said.
Time, including a trip to meet his family at a rented vacation house in Rhode Island a month after they met, took that feeling away. Hillyer grew up Roman Catholic in a Connecticut family, one of seven brothers and with seven sisters. His parents, Ira B. Hillyer and Patricia Baldwin Hillyer, died in 2007 and 2018, respectively.
"That sense of 'do right' was very much instilled in me when I was growing up," he said. It still spills into the way he discusses his career at Scholastic, where he has worked since 1993. "Getting books in kids' hands is very important," he said.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Samuels' trip to meet the extended Hillyer clan turned her onto what she called a different approach to life. "Joe's family lives by the adage 'the more the merrier,'" she said. "My family is more known for saying, 'Well, have you received an invitation?' We all had individual space and boundaries. It was just a different way of growing up." When they left Rhode Island, one of Hillyer's sisters said "I love you" to Samuels.
"I was completely stunned by this," she said. When she told Hillyer, "He said, 'I love you, so she loves you.' His family is incredibly generous of spirit."
Samuels has never been able to date more than one person at a time, and after she figured out that Hillyer came by his guilelessness honestly, she didn't want to try. Hillyer felt the same. But committing to each other in a way that went beyond being each other's date for Saturday nights took time. (Some of their favorite dates included long drives through New Jersey and the Hudson Valley.)
For years, they spent weeknights apart, with Hillyer in Rutherford and Samuels in Montclair, where she moved in 2008 after years on the Upper West Side.
Samuels wanted more. "I would sometimes grouse with my girlfriends that we should be spending more time together," she said. "And they would say, 'Wait till you move in together. You're going to want this time apart.'"
Hillyer's reluctance to live with Samuels was part caution, part ambivalence. "I had gone through a painful divorce, and I honestly didn't want to get married again," he said. "We had reached the point where I thought, 'We're going to be together until the end of days anyway.'"
A MINOR OBSESSION
In 2015, finally tired of commuting to spend weekends with each other, Hillyer moved from Rutherford into Samuels' Montclair apartment. The increased togetherness came without friction, and with a bonus for Samuels: Hillyer's kitchen skills. He grew up working in restaurants throughout New England. Food was always a minor obsession. If he didn't cook, he said, "Julie would happily eat cold pasta out of the refrigerator."
In 2017, they moved into another apartment in Montclair. Samuels had by then worked as a lawyer for corporations including Condé Nast and the New York City Opera. But she was starting to question whether a more diverse slate of clients would suit her better. In 2019, she decided she would leave the fine arts marketplace Artsy, her then-employer, and hang a shingle as an independent intellectual property and commercial transactions lawyer. Hillyer had already told her she had his support if she left the corporate world.
"He was the first one who said, 'If you do it, we'll get married,'" she said. The legal union would allow them to share his health insurance while she made her transition. On Jan. 14, the day Samuels resigned from Artsy, she came home to Montclair and found Hillyer on one knee in their living room. He had no ring. But she didn't care.
"We are very nontraditional," Samuels said. "He didn't ask me if I wanted a ring, nor did I want him to. I just wanted to marry him."
A QUICK CEREMONY
Mayor Robert Jackson was to officiate a quick ceremony they planned for March 27 in Montclair Council Chambers. Then they told friends and families, and "it started growing and growing," Samuels said. By late February, they had set up three nights of festivities, one at the downtown Montclair restaurant Faubourg, with three different sets of friends and family.
Then the coronavirus began its spread. The first week of March, they told family members to stay home to avoid putting older relatives at risk. The second week, they decided Jackson might be too busy dealing with the outbreak to marry them. "We let him off the hook," Samuels said.
They called off a festive champagne dinner for five friends at their home the evening of the wedding. Hillyer was going to make coq au vin.
Still, despite the backdrop of what had become a pandemic, legal marriage was a pressing concern. On March 16, they took to Facebook and put out an appeal to find someone local with qualifications to marry them. The spiritual background of the person didn't matter, but they hoped someone would materialize who would recognize and share the love and joy they felt about the occasion.
Within minutes he did. Roger Sedarat, a marriage officiant through the Universal Life Church, did not know Samuels and Hillyer personally, but his wife, Janette Afsharian, was friends with Samuels through the Montclair Media Alliance, a networking group. Last summer, when Samuels and Hillyer visited Barcelona for a friend's wedding, Sedarat and Afsharian's son Theo, then 12, got his first job watering their plants.
When his wife told him about the Facebook post, Sedarat, a creative writing and literary translations professor at Queens College, saw the opportunity as a gift.
'I GOT REALLY EMOTIONAL'
"It's so great to have this happen while we're all going through so much stress," he said. While jotting notes for the ceremony, he said, "I got really emotional. I was thinking about all the social distancing, and how their love is the thing that's not distant."
On March 21, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey banned gatherings of all kinds, including weddings, because of the coronavirus. But the ban would not take effect until a few hours after the ceremony took place.
On that day, Sedarat pulled up at the curb of Samuels and Hillyer's home to a festive scene. Vases of cut spring flowers dotted the front porch. Next-door neighbors Brian Juergens and Andy Swist, who agreed via text message to be witnesses, hung lavender and pastel green crepe paper balls from the ceiling of their own porch.
Before Samuels, in a black dress and teal T-strap heels, and Hillyer, in a charcoal suit, invited Sedarat onto the porch, there was some stage managing to do. Samuels pointed out a spot marked precisely 6 feet away from where she and Hillyer planned to stand. Swist got final instructions about setting up a Zoom video conference on a freshly disinfected iPhone so family and friends could watch.
Once everyone took their socially distant places, Sedarat started by suggesting a few deep breaths.
"We're all aware these are exceptional times," he said. "But this wedding has started to remind me that life goes on. This is about putting love at the center of everything."
Hillyer and Samuels read handwritten vows. He promised always to speak the truth and to be there when she needed him. She told him that she was the luckiest person in the world to have met him. "The love I feel for you is immeasurable," she said.
After Sedarat pronounced them husband and wife, Samuels wiped a few tears and blew kisses toward her virtual guests. Then she offered some final thoughts about her wedding.
"I was never a girl who found alternative plans easy," she said. "But this has been the ultimate Plan B."
High Profile on 04/26/2020