Natalie Szarak and Neil Deegan
September 16, 2017, in Avalon, N.J.
In 2004, Neil was 13 and an avid member of Venturing, a leadership skills group affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America. Friend and fellow Venturer Stephen’s mother was a group leader, and she sometimes brought Stephen’s sister Natalie, then 10, on camping trips and other outings. Natalie officially joined the group at 14.
As the years passed, Neil and Natalie became friends. He graduated from Temple University and went to work on Allyson Schwartz’s congressional campaign. When Natalie was home in Port Richmond on breaks from the University of South Carolina, they would usually meet for lunch. But on such a break in May 2011, Neil, who grew up in Northwood, had a different idea. He had just bought a place in Port Richmond and asked Natalie to accompany him to Ikea, where they picked out a houseful of furniture together.
In late 2012, Natalie returned to Pennsylvania and needed a place to live. “My mom knew Neil’s old roommate moved out, and she said, ‘Why don’t you see if you can live with him for a while until you find another solution?’ ” Natalie said.
She became Neil’s roommate in January 2013 — a move she saw as temporary. “I was planning to move back to South Carolina eventually,” Natalie said.
Then that February, Stephen — her brother and his friend — had a brain aneurysm. “I was in a very distraught place,” she said. One dark day, Natalie needed the support of her friend. “I’m coming to cuddle,” she told Neil. Their friendship deepened as they supported each other and Stephen, who lost the use of one side of his body but who has otherwise made a full recovery.
Neil and Natalie did just about everything together, delighting in each other’s company.
Then that May, Natalie’s beloved grandmother Alice died. “He came to the funeral with me, and everybody kept saying, ‘He’s great! You picked a great guy,’ ” Natalie said. “But we weren’t dating.”
Neil felt a confusing mixture of awkwardness and hopefulness.
When they were children, Natalie had a schoolgirl crush on her brother’s buddy. When they were adults, Neil developed romantic feelings for her but never acted on them. “It was never the right time,” he said. Her becoming his roommate seemed to seal their relationship as platonic, he said.
Yet here they were at her grandma’s funeral, and people were introducing him as Natalie’s boyfriend.
“I was unsure of what we were,” Neil said.
On June 1, in their shared living room, Neil told Natalie he wanted to be more than friends and said he wondered if her family was right, and that they had already become more. Natalie told Neil she thought they had.
It was easy to fall in love with someone she had known most of her life, trusted, and liked so much. And she admired him, too. “He’s very passionate about everything that he does. And he’s just always so kind.”
As their friendship had grown over the years, Neil found that Natalie could consistently make him laugh, that she was the one person who could make him forget about work for a while and get him to try new things. “She is exactly the kind of person you would want to spend the rest of your life with — she is certainly the exact person I wanted to.”
Natalie, now 27, is a caretaker and is finishing her master’s degree in psychology and counseling at Holy Family University. Neil, now 30, is managing partner at Rittenhouse Political Partners.
They still live in the Port Richmond house, with much of the Ikea furniture they picked out together, and their puppy, Harley, and cats Georgia and Carson.
Natalie loves Savannah, Ga., so much that the couple had already vacationed their several times, so in 2016, Neil figured he could propose a romantic Valentine’s Day weekend there without raising suspicion that he would be proposing something else.
He told Natalie they were heading to Forsyth Park to catch an architecture tour. “I was not suspicious,” Natalie said. “We both love buildings and real estate.”
They walked around the whole park, ending at the fountain. That’s where Neil knelt, told her he loved her and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. He took the ring box from his blazer pocket, opened it so she could see, and asked, “Will you marry me?”
“Is this for real?” she asked. It was suddenly hard to breathe. “I need water.”
He assured her it was real. Very.
“Yes!” she said. “But I still need some water.” Neil took some out of his backpack.
A photographer took pictures. They took a horse-drawn carriage around Savannah and had a fancy Southern-style dinner at the Olde Pink House.
It was so them
The couple married on the beach in Avalon, N.J., at the Windrift Hotel. After years of hearing Marguerite Sexton, founder of Journeys of the Heart, give beautiful invocations at political events, Neil asked her to recommend an officiant for his wedding. Though officially retired, Marguerite said she’d do the honors herself and created a personalized ceremony embroidered with the story of how the couple’s lives brought them to their wedding day.
Natalie and Neil chose a reading from Winnie the Pooh, and recognized those who couldn’t be present: Natalie’s grandmother, Neil’s grandmother Betty, and Neil’s father Richard, who died when Neil was 11.
It was all beautiful and sentimental, and yet the couple couldn’t stop giggling. “Somebody was getting proposed to, and we had a plane with a banner fly by eight times during our ceremony,” Natalie said.
Neil’s brother and best man Michael nudged him. Pay attention to what’s happening, not the plane, he urged. But it was so loud, and all 170 guests would look up in unison.
The reception was indoors, in a second-floor room with giant windows overlooking the ocean. “What I remember when we walked in was it was so beautiful and light in there, with flowers everywhere, and all of our family and friends,” Natalie said.
There were a few short speeches, from the best man, vice best man, matron of honor, and father of the bride. The groom’s uncle led a prayer.
And then: Charlie Rose.
Yes, the Charlie Rose. Neil and Natalie were delighted to discover they both adore his interviews. They joked that they should ask him to marry them. On a secret lark, Neil found Rose’s assistant’s email. And so, after the toasts, several TVs lit up with a video surprise for the bride: Rose himself, congratulating the couple and thanking them for watching him and paying attention to world events.
Post-Charlie, they danced.
Sitting together at their sweetheart table, seeing how the flowers, the lighting, and, most of all, the people they love had all come together, “was overwhelming,” Natalie said. “They were all there to be part of our special moment,” Neil agreed.
The budget crunch
A bargain: The couple loved Manic Botanic’s work but had no budgetary space for the florist’s first plan. The second one came back at half the price. “It was clear to us that we got so much more than what we paid for. They went completely over and above what we expected,” Neil said.
The splurge: “We didn’t know what we were looking for until we saw it,” Neil said. JPG Photography’s journalistic style was it. “We could have probably gone with something else that was not what we wanted for much less, but this was exactly what we were looking for.”
Somewhere in the Pacific, sometime in 2018.
Behind the scenes
Officiant: Marguerite Sexton, now-retired founder of Journeys of the Heart, Jenkintown.
Venue: Windrift Hotel, Avalon, N.J.
Food: Windrift Hotel and A Piece of Cake, Villas, N.J.
Music: Justin Byrne, Synergetic Sound, Bensalem.
Photography: Adam Nettleton, JPG Photography, Philadelphia.
Videography: Gustavo Garcia, JPG Photography, Philadelphia.
Flowers: Lillian Bashenko, Manic Botanic, Corbin City, N.J.
Dress: Designed by Stella Yorke, purchased at Rena Elle Couture, Maple Shade.
Hair/Makeup: The Studio, Villas, N.J.
Groom’s attire: Generation Tux.