The Denver Clerk and Recorder's Office does not mess around when it comes to love. They love love. They love it so much that they converted their bland beige conference room -- known today as the "Sweetheart Bistro" -- into an explosion of shiny red hearts, Cupid-shaped confetti and fake rose petals to celebrate the happy couples who decided to tie the knot on Valentine's Day at the normally ho-hum city clerk's office. For the fourth year in a row, the office went all out. On hand: Herbie "The Love Judge" Galchinsky, pink cookies, a slide show of past ceremonies, gift baskets, "Smencils" (scented pencils) for decorating paper hearts, and a bowl full of plastic rings, in case the couples didn't bring their own. Later this afternoon, the Sound of the Rockies Barbershop Chorus is scheduled to show up for a serenade or two. "This is the one day of the year when we can just have fun with it," says spokeswoman Tina Romero.
This is the first year Galchinsky, a retired judge who presided over the restraining order case of Louis Hampers and former 9News reporter Deborah Sherman, offered to marry folks for free. And, damn, the guy is good! After briefly meeting with the couples beforehand, the man who claims to "do more weddings than anybody around" customized each ceremony, including personal details -- "You met on a bus" -- and speaking in soft, comforting tones while still managing to sound wise and grandfatherly. "Marriage is not to be entered into lightly," he told the couples. "I'm sure you know that."
In addition to the thrill of being married in the "Sweetheart Bistro," the couples were awarded prizes. Each received a goodie bag of swag that included a reusable lunch bag from Denver Water, an ice scraper from Denver Partners Against Graffiti and a "robot claw" from who-knows-where. There were also gift baskets with donated goodies -- chocolates! wine! theater tickets! -- to be awarded based on a couple's attributes. The "Most Bookish Couple" got a basket donated by the Denver Public Library, for example.
The big winners, however, were Fidel and Sonya Ruiz. The fourteenth couple of the day, they walked into the "Bistro" at 10:14 a.m. and were greeted with the news that they'd won two free tickets on Southwest. "We need you to go up to the love wall," a city employee said, ushering the stunned couple to a wall plastered in paper hearts.
There they were handed two giant cardboard tickets while a rep from Southwest gripped and grinned for the TV cameras. The Ruizes looked positively overwhelmed. When asked on camera why they chose Valentine's Day as their wedding date, a wide-eyed Fidel Ruiz said, "We just decided to get married. That's it."
Later, when most of the cameras had packed up and left, the couple, who have been together ever since Sonya's sister introduced them seven years ago, exchanged plastic rings while their young son, Alejandro, blew bubbles. When Galchinsky proclaimed, "It's my pleasure to present, for the first time, Fidel and Sonya Ruiz!" the dozen city employees (all dressed in black and red) manning the "Bistro" clapped and cheered. Flip the page for more photos.
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More from our Strange But True archive: "Valentine's Day is stupid, says my wife: Just another reason I love her."