Betsy Koester: A steady hand for the wedding jitters
BY LISA TREI
Betsy Koester stands with her back to the altar in Memorial Church and tells an expectant groom to smile at his wife-to-be practicing a trip down the aisle.
"David, look at your bride," Stanford's wedding coordinator commands cheerfully, as the young woman is escorted down the long aisle to the altar by her father. The nervous couple meet in front of Koester, who reminds them of the vows they will repeat on their wedding day. "No elbow prompting," she says gently. "This is free will."
The couple laughs and Koester, with the steadied assurance of someone who has run 1,500 weddings at MemChu, tells the bride and groom that everything will turn out just fine on the big day. An action-packed hour later, the rehearsal ends for David Quinlivan and Van Ton, a couple who met at the Graduate School of Business, Class of '95. Soon, a new wedding party enters the cavernous church and begins to prepare for another picture-perfect ceremony. An hour later, another couple runs through similar motions.
It's a typical Friday for Koester, a '58 alumna. She approaches each rehearsal with the confidence of someone who has seen it all but remains unjaded by this ageless ceremony.
"We really want the day to be special for those getting married," Koester says before the rehearsals, sitting in her tiny garret office at the top of a winding staircase in the church. "Our position has been to try to operate with grace and to try to honor the couple at a very important time in their lives."
Running the show in MemChu since 1984 (with a three-year hiatus after the 1989 earthquake that closed the church), Koester has developed a personal style exuding confidence that helps guarantee the success of every ceremony.
"By acting as if everything is going to be OK, Betsy increases the odds that it will," says Dean of the Chapel Robert Gregg. "She is firm and clear in her instructions, but never an oppressor. She just brings serious positive vibes to these occasions."
Gregg should know. He has officiated at dozens of Koester-orchestrated ceremonies and, four years ago, he was a customer when his own daughter got married. So was MemChu's administrator, Imelda White, when her daughter got married last August. "She made my life so easy," White says. "She just handled it with such grace and warmth and friendliness."
Father Patrick LaBelle, a Catholic priest on campus, says that coordinators intent on style often come into conflict with those ministering the religious part of the ceremony. "I've been around a lot of wedding coordinators and she stands above them all," says LaBelle, a priest for 33 years, including three years at Stanford. "Betsy never makes us feel as if we, or the wedding couple, are intruding in her plans. Everything is scripted, but not in a way that pushes [us] around. She doesn't lose her cool."
A Stanford wedding is pretty traditional as ceremonies go. Couples who want to play contemporary music like the "Wedding Song" sung by Peter, Paul and Mary or use their pet dog as a ring bearer are politely told no. But Koester says that people are attracted by the inclusive, interfaith philosophy of the church. "This place serves as common ground for so many cultures, ethnicities and religions," she says.
LaBelle says that Koester knows how to handle the niceties of different religious ceremonies, from a Sufi marriage to a Catholic High Mass or an interfaith union. "She's up for every wedding," LaBelle says, "and she knows the names and little tidbits about all the members of the wedding party."
Associate Dean Maurice Charles, an Episcopalian minister, says Koester is adept at remembering the small stuff. "I'm very detail-oriented and she's very good about keeping a million details in order," Charles says. "In my two years here, I can't remember a wedding that's gone poorly."
Part of that versatility comes from Koester's professional training. She earned a master's in theology in 1992 from Union Seminary in New York City. Her bachelor's degree in speech and drama helps when arranging the choreography, and a trained singing voice gets put to good use in rehearsals.
"Da, da, da, da, remember to breathe and smile, don't be in a hurry," Koester sings to Henry Purcell's "Trumpet Tune" as the bridesmaids from the Ton-Quinlivan party form a line to practice the procession. The group collapses into giggles but continues moving at a more measured pace. "Very nicely done," Koester says.
Although June is the traditional month for weddings, Stanford's busiest season is August, a time favored by graduates returning on vacation. "During high season, we have five on a Saturday and one on Sunday afternoon," says Koester, for an annual total of 150 weddings. Although a couple can invite their own clergymember, a Stanford chaplain also must officiate, and the couple's vows must be repeated in the state language of English.
Only faculty and staff members, current students and graduates and their children are eligible to be married in MemChu. Koester says that most are attracted to the church for its aesthetics and the grand organ music. "It's a beautiful place," she says. "But in fairness, many of them have very fine sustaining memories of their time at Stanford."
The wedding program costs $1,000, although current students are charged $700. This includes the church reservation and the services of Koester, the sound technician, the sexton and a premarital counselor. On top of that, $200 goes to the clergy and $175 to the organist. The university does not arrange flowers, photographers and reception facilities.
After meeting with Koester, couples take a personality profile test that outlines how they view themselves and their intended spouse. They also meet with a premarital counselor three times. These sessions help define the importance of the occasion, Koester says. "We wanted to avoid becoming a drop-in center, an aside event," she says. "There's an effort to make people pull back from hurry-up time, from their busy lives. This is a very open time in people's lives. It's a good time to investigate those thorny questions [about marriage]."
On the day, Koester sits down with university organist Robert Bates and the sextons and tells them what to expect. Before each ceremony, she darts from the bridal party to the groomsmen who prepare themselves in separate rooms on opposite sides of the church. Tourists are whisked away and any marriage parties from outside the university that have wandered onto campus a prime spot for wedding photography are shooed out of sight.
At five minutes past the hour, Koester leads the bride and her bridesmaids from their side room to the front of the church. The heavy main doors are flung open for the bride's grand entrance. "You're silhouetted in the light," she tells Ton and her party. "It's a wondrous sight." She adds, wisely, "I hope your dresses are lined or you have slips."
Gregg says such attention to detail is Koester's trademark. So is her concern that every wedding is a memorable one.
"For her, it's more than a job," he
says. "It's a vocation for serving people and caring about them."