Close Window | Print


Inside Bay Area


February 15, 2007


By Rebekah Gordon, STAFF WRITER



Feb. 14 weddings soar at county chapel



REDWOOD CITY — After 12 years of making sure to take a snapshot of each couple she marries, Helen Cocco has amassed five albums' worth of pictures.


A binder, containing a paper log of each couple she sees filed behind the standard vows she reads, is covered in Post-it Notes with the addresses of the newlyweds so she can send doubles in case they don't have a camera.


"It's like a history," the 76-year-old Redwood City resident said of her photo collection. "Hopefully, I can give it to the county one of these days when I no longer do it."


A volunteer deputy commissioner of marriage for the assessor-county clerk-recorder, Cocco was plenty busy Wednesday, officiating four Valentine's Day weddings. But that number is a tiny sprint compared to the marathon of more than 1,000 marriages she estimates she's conducted since 1994. The county relies on volunteers like her to officiate ceremonies throughout the year in its wedding chapel, especially Feb. 14, typically the busiest dayof the year.


"It's such a happy occasion — Valentine's Day is really neat," said Cocco, a widow for 22 years. "This is a day that will always linger in their memory and will always remind them that they were in love or are in love. And it's easy to remember."


Cocco sees all walks of life in her officiant duties. Wednesday brought her Menlo Park resident Ben Hokmabadi, 31, and Azi Bidgoli, 27, a dental hygiene student at Western Career College in San Jose.


The two plan a more formal wedding in their native Iran next year but were ready to begin their life together here after meeting at a Persian New Year's party last year.

In just a couple of weeks, they settled on the county wedding route, and Bidgoli rushed from a midterm Wednesday morning to make it to the chapel in time.


Thirteen weddings were scheduled for this Valentine's Day with just three volunteers to conduct them. Although it was a lower-than-average Valentine's Day — about 24 weddings is the recent record — it was still high-volume for the county, which typically does only about four a day. With a tiny pool of volunteers, the county is trying to boost its wedding-officiant ranks.


Theresa Rabe, the deputy county clerk, said her office seeks volunteers in retirement communities, at recreation centers and among poll workers to perform the duties once assigned to judges.


"We've tried to reach out, and we're not getting feedback at present," Rabe said.


The "job" requires a weekly commitment — Cocco comes one afternoon and one morning a week — but not much else. Volunteers greet couples, help families get seated and read the standard civil ceremony words.


"Then it's take some pictures, give a few hugs, and that's it," Rabe said.


Rabe said those who tend to come to the county for a wedding either can't afford much else — it's only $35 to rent the chapel — have most of their family and friends elsewhere, or just want to keep it simple.


"They often bring only immediate family or a few friends," Rabe said. "It's the more private setting that they're looking for."


Since 2000, the county has been "televising" ceremonies via a tiny Webcam is hidden in a wall-mounted bouquet of artificial flowers — broadcasting them live online over a secured connection to invited viewers. Rabe said families from as far away as Iceland and Botswana have logged on.


Commissioners say they've seen it all: Couples in formal wear and those dressed in jeans; couples accompanied by a gaggle of family and those who show up by themselves and have to use a county employee as a witness. Cocco has even seen the occasional inebriated couple and a groom who almost fainted.


Lisa Kirsten, 40, and Robert McDaniel, 52, made sure to come in style. McDaniel, a construction foreman, wore a rented tuxedo and Kirsten a three-piece white leather bodice suit complete with stiletto white leather boots.


Although they now live in Dixon, the two wanted to return to San Mateo County for their wedding, a second marriage for both. Kirsten is a native of South San Francisco, and the two met at a card shop in the Serramonte Center in Daly City when Kirsten was 19.


They also came to get married at the county office for simplicity's sake and to save for a honeymoon in Cancun, Mexico.


"We both had marriages before that didn't work, and I didn't want the big wedding," Kirsten said. "We thought, 'Why spend all this money on a wedding where we're trying to impress everybody else? Let's spend it on ourselves, and let's enjoy it.'"


Their wedding was officiated by Helen Arbues, a South San Francisco resident who also has been a commissioner since 1994. Although she can't recall how many weddings she's done — "Oh, Lord, I can't even begin to tell you," she said when asked — she's at least done enough that she has the entire ceremony memorized. She always offers to take pictures of the couples, gives both the bride and groom a kiss and a hug, and wishes them "a long and happy life together."


A widow and a retired nurse, Arbues had five weddings on her plate for Valentine's Day, although one couple was a no-show. She said doing the weddings was a refreshing change from her years in nursing, when she saw many people who would rather be elsewhere.


"They're all pretty excited and happy — most of them," said Arbues, who would not reveal her age. "Every now and then you wonder. You know how it is."


To volunteer as a deputy commissioner of marriage, call the assessor-county clerk-recorder at (650) 363-4500.


Staff writer Rebekah Gordon can be reached at (650) 306-2428 or