Katrina can't dampen Louisianans' wedding
October 6, 2005
By Sandra Carmichael Bayne
Bride and groom Dawnia and Darryl Willis outside the Federated Church with Dawnia's three-year-old son, Kaleb Richard.
Joyous newlyweds surrounded by family and friends.
Dawnia Willis embraces the groom's mother, Cora Hambrick Willis.
Groomsmen (from left) Kelvin Collins, Daniel Samake, and Hozie Fontenberry (far right) look on as best man Robert Willis embraces his brother, groom Darryl Willis.
Photos by Lisa Brown
When Darryl Keith Willis proposed to his fiancee, Dawnia Tyrese Richard, both Louisiana natives, at the Eiffel Tower in Paris a year ago, neither of them could have imagined that a hurricane of Katrina's proportions would so seriously alter the lives of family and friends who planned to attend their Edgartown wedding in September.
On their visit last year, Dawnia and Darryl fell in love with Martha's Vineyard and planned for a late summer wedding. They had heard good things about the Island and found that it fulfilled all of their expectations. Wedding plans were close to completion when the hurricane arrived. Undaunted, they bravely continued their preparations.
Although guests arrived from all parts of the country, at least half of the150 invited were unable to attend because of Katrina's aftermath. However, the couple invited a few Oak Bluffs residents to join in the joyous celebration.
Because the New Orleans airport was closed, Cat Jones, the best friend of the groom's mother, hitched a ride with a funeral home employee from her home in Opelousas, La. to Houston in order to fly to Boston. Several family members were unable to attend because they were either housing large numbers of displaced guests or caring for elderly relatives seeking refuge from the flooding. Those who did journey from Louisiana endured a five-hour drive to Houston before their flight to Boston, a bus to Woods Hole, and finally the ferry.
Cora Hambrick Willis from New Orleans, mother of the groom, lost everything in the storm, including her wedding dress. Nordstrom generously flew a replacement directly to the Vineyard in time for her son's wedding. She and best man Robert Willis, Jr., the groom's brother, were completely displaced by the hurricane and both were living in Houston with the groom.
With all those from New Orleans displaced, the groom's entire family was in turmoil. After the wedding some were going to Houston, some to Los Angeles and some to Washington, D.C. to stay with family members.
The bride's sister, Sterlyn Richard, was just beginning her year at Loyola University in New Orleans when she returned home to Opelousas to attend the bridal shower. This trip saved her from the storm but her belongings were lost to flooding. Now she must enroll at Louisiana University at Lafayette to complete her year at college.
Although most had never suffered anything nearly as devastating as Hurricane Katrina, Vineyard residents are not unfamiliar with the wrath of hurricanes and showed the wedding party the warmest of Island hospitality. The groom's cousin, Dr. Valerie Dargan, said Island merchants including Our Market, Bill Smith's Martha's Vineyard Clambake Co., and Atria went out of their way to accommodate the fluctuating attendance numbers. And musicians Deborah and Patrick at Lola's adjusted their repertoire to capture a beat for the Louisiana celebrants at pre-wedding festivities.
In spite of all of this, Dawnia Tyrese Richard and Darryl Keith Willis were married in a charming ceremony on Saturday, Sept.10, presided over by Dr. Gerald R. Fritz at the Federated Church in Edgartown. The bride was attended by her sister, the maid of honor Sterlyn Richard, her cousin, Novella Richard, and others. The groom was attended by his brother, best man Robert Willis, Sr. and others.
The weather was perfect, and the glowing bride floated down the aisle in a strapless white satin princess ball gown encrusted with glistening crystal beads by Henry Roth of New York. Her cascading veil was held in place by a diamond tiara, and she wore a diamond necklace with matching chandelier earrings. Members of the wedding party and mothers of the bride and groom were elegantly dressed as well.
Dr. Arlene Richard, mother of the bride, and Mrs. Cora Hambrick Willis, mother of the groom, offered their children's hands in matrimony.
Mr. Fritz, acknowledged the absence of friends and relatives affected by the storm, and prayers were offered in behalf of those who suffered great losses. But the sun shone brightly on the happy couple as they said their vows. Each of them was visibly touched by emotion as they exchanged rings and promised to join together forever in a sacred bond.
Spirit of celebration
Although some guests had lost relatives in the hurricane, nevertheless an indomitable spirit of celebration permeated the festivities and lifted everyone up.
Wedding festivities continued well into the night at Atria with a lavish reception and after-party — Louisiana-style. The elegant bride and groom graciously circulated among the guests assuring that everyone was having a good time. And, indeed everyone was. Johnny Hoy and Jeremy Berlin played, champagne flowed, and guests danced the traditional Louisiana secondline dance in joyous celebration with handkerchiefs and napkins held high over their heads, singing the classic but now poignant "Walking to New Orleans."
Atria owner Greer Thornton said it was the most lovely and spiritual wedding reception that the restaurant had ever hosted. She said the families were determined to overcome the obstacles placed in the way of their joyfulness, and that they made the party all about family and survival.
Friday's rehearsal dinner was an old-fashioned New England clambake hosted by the groom. Celebrations ended on Sunday with brunch at Lola's, rounding off a complete weekend of hurricane-defying merry-making in true Island flavor with a Louisiana twist.
The newlyweds will live in Houston where the groom is a geophysicist with British Petroleum oil company and the bride has just completed a Ph.D. in pharmacy.
"We had our dream wedding on Martha's Vineyard surrounded by our family and friends," said Darryl Willis. "It was an awesome experience for us — a beautiful wedding, in a beautiful place, with some of the greatest people in our lives. Memories we will cherish for a lifetime. We look forward to making a trip to Martha's Vineyard an annual occurrence. Our dream is to one day own a home here."
Sandra Carmichael Bayne is a free lance writer and art critic based in Washington, D.C.