As with any wedding, the nuptials of Colleen O’Neill and Todd Blackman on Saturday had hiccups.
Jake, the couple’s 3-year-old son and ring bearer, was more interested in being his mother’s shadow than in holding the pillow he was assigned to carry.
The public address system cut in and out about halfway through the ceremony, leading chaplain Jim Riley to turn it off and project his voice loudly for the remainder.
And while the couple and their guests were among the few still in Columbia Park following Water Follies, one particularly loud boat passed by on the Columbia River
“I’m used to this happening during races,” Riley said over the din. “I just wait for them to pass.”
Earlier that day, Blackman and O’Neill, who have attended Follies as spectators and volunteers for decades, said there were challenges to throwing their wedding at the center of the busiest weekend in the Tri-Cities.
But it is an indelible part of their lives and the perfect place to commit themselves to each other, in front of friends and family who are tied just as closely to the annual unlimited hydroplane races.
“Now that we’re here, it’s been fun,” O’Neill told the Herald.
Blackman, 53, began volunteering at the races 20 years ago, starting out as one of the event’s numerous gate attendants.
“It was a two-hour shift,” he said. “I got a free pass, a T-shirt and a lunch and spent the rest of the weekend enjoying the races.”
Five years later, he was promoted to operations manager for the starting line complex, also called the Barge, after the previous manager quit three months before Follies. He’s held onto the job ever since, currently overseeing a crew of 25 people as well as the setup and teardown of the complex and coordinating the racing heats and air show performances the entire weekend.
O’Neill, 48, was born on a Follies weekend and grew up attending the event since she was a child. Her family held reunions during the event on the Pasco side and she shares her grandfather’s, father’s and brothers’ interest in racing sports and competition in general.
“We’re an intense family,” she said, laughing.
She started volunteering at Follies more than 10 years ago, starting out as a helper in the special needs seating area at the event.
An office romance
The couple didn’t meet at Follies, but at their regular workplace.
Blackman is a conservation specialist with Franklin Public Utility District while O’Neill is an administrator in the main office. They first met on the job 10 years ago when they began working on projects together.
“We’ve always gotten along real well together,” O’Neill said, saying she was always impressed with Blackman’s motivation, willingness to help, kindness and gentleness.
Blackman felt a spark with O’Neill, too, but he avoided her for a while upon realizing that.
“I knew there were fireworks there and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it,” he said.
They started dating about four years ago. They have since bought a house together and have a 3-year-old son, Jake.
Paul Menasco, a friend of Blackman’s, said he’s watched the couple their entire courtship.
“They’re one of those couples other couples are jealous of,” he said. “They’re a natural fit for each other.”
A Follies wedding
When Blackman suggested last year he and O’Neill marry not only during Follies but at the event itself, she was skeptical.
Any wedding can be difficult to plan, but this was a whole other level, and the couple still had their annual responsibilities during the weekend.
“He will take on a bunch and I said to him, ‘are you sure we can do this?’” she said.
But Blackman had solid logic — it was the one weekend of the year they knew family and friends would be in town. Since the ceremony and reception would have to be after the Follies events that day, they could use the temporarily dormant Barge for their reception.
And why not seal their love for each other during their favorite time of the year, and during the 50th anniversary of Follies and the Gold Cup to boot?
“I thought it was cool,” Menasco recalled after learning of the wedding plans. “He’s been doing (Follies) for so many years it just seemed appropriate.”
There were hurdles. Not all the guests would be at Follies during the day and would arrive in the evening, when vehicles generally aren’t allowed to enter Columbia Park, so special parking permits had to be issued.
No decorating could take place before the day’s events were over, providing roughly two hours to get everything ready. And O’Neill, who very much likes to have control over events, had to cede that responsibility to Blackman and his friends so she could get dressed.
“I’ve got to leave and let these guys do it,” she said. “Seriously, I’m going to rely on these guys to decorate for my wedding.”
But after the crowds that filled Columbia Park for Follies left in a stream of cars and buses that evening, a few vehicles trickled in, following a trail of gold heart-shaped balloons.
They headed to the park’s golf course, right next to the Barge. Folding chairs were set out on the first hole, a small white pergola decorated with cream-colored ribbons standing in front of them.
Blackman, decked out in a light tan suit with gold-toned tie and vest in honor of this year’s Gold Cup, waited for his bride and son in front of their friends and family.
O’Neill, in a knee-length white dress in gold-tone heels, smiled as her son trailed her down the aisle.
After some words on marriage from the Bible, Rocky Balboa and Yoda, the couple kissed and embraced as their guests rose to clap and cheer.
And as they and their son walked back down the aisle, Menasco drove up with a golf cart, cans tied to the back bumper, for them to drive the short distance to the reception.
“Anniversaries will be good,” Blackman had said.
“Yeah, he can’t forget,” O’Neill said, smiling.