Couple still married, 40 years after emergency hospital wedding

Couple still married, 40 years after emergency hospital wedding

Mather President Kenneth Roberts (left) and former hospital administrator Arthur Santilli watch as Joanne and Ray Wolter cut a cake for their 40th wedding anniversary. Photo from Mather Hospital

What was supposed to be a special day for a Sound Beach resident and her husband-to-be 40 years ago took a sudden turn with little time to spare. Thanks to the efforts of her community hospital, the day became arguably even more memorable.

On May 14, 1976, a day before Ray and Joanne Wolter were supposed to be married at Infant Jesus Roman Catholic Church in Port Jefferson, a giant monkey wrench was thrown into their plans. Her father, William P. Strauch Jr., walked into the family’s home and told the bride and her relatives, who were beginning to assemble for the wedding the next day, that he had just been in a car accident a few blocks away, and he had walked home.

“He was a tough guy,” Wolter said of her father at a 40th anniversary celebration at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital on Tuesday, where members of the Wolter family and hospital administration from then and now gathered to remember that unusual day.

After some convincing, Strauch boarded an ambulance to Mather Hospital, where it was found he had a punctured lung and a few broken ribs as a result of the crash. Doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to attend his only daughter’s wedding the following day. The hospital’s staff quickly sprung into action.

“I didn’t even have a chance to think beyond ‘oh my goodness,’ and somebody was there at my side offering me assistance and offering me a solution,” Wolter said.

Ray and Joanne Wolter’s 1976 wedding was the first at Mather Hospital. Photo from the hospital
Ray and Joanne Wolter’s 1976 wedding was the first at Mather Hospital. Photo from the hospital

Nurses from the emergency room spoke to then-Associate Administrator Arthur Santilli, who has since retired but made a surprise appearance at the celebration Tuesday.

“When she came to me and talked to me about this, I said, ‘Let’s offer them Mather,’” Santilli said Tuesday. “The wedding was an uncommon thing but anytime our community had a need, we stepped forward — as they still do.”

The wedding took place in a conference room at Mather the next day. A few weddings have occurred at Mather since, but the Wolters’ marriage on May 15, 1976, was the first time the hospital served as a wedding chapel. Nurses prepped Strauch, dressing him in his light blue tuxedo jacket with black pants, white shirt and black bow tie. When it came time for his daughter to be married, Strauch walked her down the aisle, and Joanne Wolter said there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

“The party I hardly remember, but the wedding piece I remember crystal clear and it was thanks to you folks and your compassion and your quick action,” the wife said Tuesday, as she thanked hospital administration for helping to make her wedding day happen.

Ray Wolter said his wife frequently comments on her favorite photo of her and her father from that day, which is displayed in their current home in Farmingville.

“Thanks to the leadership in this place, we were able to celebrate a day that could have been very difficult, especially for my wife who remembers that day — of course I do, too — being able to walk down the aisle with her father,” he said.

Joanne Wolter remembered the craziness of those 24 hours, and the difficulties of contacting 150 guests to let them know about what was going on in an era before cell phones. The reception went on as planned at The Wagon Wheel in Port Jefferson Station, which is now The Meadow Club.

“Our bond with Mather Hospital is a strong one … even now,” she said in an invitation to Tuesday’s anniversary event. “It’s our community hospital. It always will be. Every year we remember this day and how Mather went the extra mile for my family.”

Santilli downplayed the importance of his quick decision-making and accommodating actions: “We fix what we can,” he said.