`Today' throws wedding for Md. couple

Valley Lee sweethearts to let viewers plan event

July 23, 2005|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

As sweethearts Mark Dale and Sarah Raley of Southern Maryland waited yesterday to discover whether they had won the Today show's annual dream wedding contest, Dale grabbed the hand he asked for in marriage last year and nervously stroked it with his thumb.

"I thought he was going to put a hole in my hand. Just before they announced it he whispered to me, `My heart is in my throat!'" Raley said.

Her hand more or less intact, Raley and Dale learned on the live telecast they had won the contest over three other finalists.

Upon hearing the announcement, Dale, 26, raised his arms in triumph, and Raley, 23, stared at her husband-to-be, clenched her fists and cheered. Then the two embraced while a crowd of about 150 relatives and friends who accompanied them to Solomons Island for the Today show telecast celebrated.

"It's been a whirlwind week," said Dale, a health club general manager.

And if he was nervous yesterday, imagine how Dale will be for the nationally televised wedding, all courtesy of NBC, scheduled for Sept. 16 in their hometown of Valley Lee in St. Mary's County.

By then, the viewing public, who voted for them via e-mail over hundreds of other entrants, will have had an emotional stake in the nuptials. In the coming weeks, they'll be voting on just about all aspects - from the dress to the invitations to the wedding cake - of the ceremony. Dale and Raley are headed for New York tomorrow for Monday's show, for example, when voting on the wedding bands will begin.

NBC spokeswoman Lauren Kapp said yesterday that Today staff will travel to the Valley Lee area to work with the couple on selecting a venue.

Yesterday's announcement culminates a six-year courtship for a couple who attended the same high school (when he was a senior and she was a freshman) but didn't begin dating until after he graduated.

They then forged a bond that strengthened as both of their families endured tragedies.

Dale's mother was stricken with cancer, and Raley's love for her mate grew as she watched him care for his mother up to her death. Before passing, she told her son not to let Raley go.

Dale listened, and in 2003 he asked Raley's father, John, for her hand in marriage. But Raley was attending St. Mary's College of Maryland, and her father, who graduated from the school, was adamant she finish.

"I said, `Fine, but not before she graduates college,'" said John Raley, who himself has cancer.

His daughter graduated in spring 2004, and to celebrate, she and Dale vacationed on the French Riviera in August. On the last day of the trip, Dale popped the question, and she accepted.

The two subsequently purchased a home, but they don't intend to live together until after they're married.

"He's already moved in the home, but I haven't," said Raley, a hotel sales director. "You don't find many couples who have been together for six years who haven't lived together."

Now the two can rest assured that the wedding expenses are taken care of as well. Not to mention the fact that all the painstaking tasks that go with organizing the event will be left to someone else.

Raley said she has no problem with the general public having a final say in their wedding plans.

"I knew that going into it," she said. "They asked us about that over and over again. I've seen it in years past and every selection is beautiful. That's part of the fun, to do something different."

In Southern Maryland, the two have become famous; they asked that yesterday's live telecast be held in Solomons Island (site of their first date) because it was easy to reach for relatives and friends who wanted to share the experience.

Raley said that when she initially posed the idea to Dale, he expressed only casual interest, but once they began making a video explaining why they should be selected, he was hooked.

Initially, they told only their parents that they had entered.

Then on the night of the July 5 application deadline, they got a phone call from a Today official wanting more information. Then another call. Then another.

When they reached the quarterfinal round, Dale and Raley began believing they may indeed be selected.

What has taken them by surprise is how popular they've become nationwide.

The news that they were finalists spread quickly, throughout Southern Maryland and nationwide. By yesterday, when they were named finalists, the couple were already part of pop culture.

"We went to New York for a taping; coming from a small town in Maryland to go to New York City was amazing," said Dale. "Kids were coming up to us, going, `Aren't you Mark and Sarah from the Today show?' We walked into Tiffany's and Louis Vuitton and people who work there were coming up to us."

Kapp said the wedding segment is not only a hit with fans but something everyone who works on the show looks forward to.

"Just about everyone in the general public has either had a wedding, planned a wedding or hopes to have a wedding one day," she said. "It's something that gives our viewers a feeling that they're part of the programming for the show."

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