AUBURN, Maine — Victoria James was the picture of surprise.
The wide eyes, the hands clutched to her chest, the hanging jaw and trembling legs. Why, the 19-year-old could barely speak.
Fortunately, James was able to manage the few words that meant so much to the man kneeling beside her.
“Yes,” she said. “I will marry you.”
And the crowd roared.
It’s not easy to surprise someone in front of hundreds of strangers, but Luther Schalk did it with finesse. A percussionist with the Auburn Community Concert Band, Schalk proposed to James at the end of the Wednesday night show.
He didn’t pull her aside and ask her privately. He didn’t shout it from the stage and risk being misunderstood. To pull off the perfect proposal, Schalk enlisted the aid of band director Milt Simon, who enticed James to the stage by insinuating that she had won a prize.
In fact, she had. The prize contained a dozen roses, a diamond ring and of course, the passionate promise of eternal love from her boyfriend.
The crowd loved it. Moments after the question was popped and the answer delivered, friends and well-wishers surrounded Schalk and James like paparazzi.
All in accordance with the plan.
“We’ve had some wonderful times together,” Schalk said, “and I’ve fallen more in love every day. She’s the best girl in the world, and she’s the one with whom I want to spend my life. For that reason alone, I wanted to make our engagement a very special and memorable occasion, because she’s a special and wonderful person.”
The proposal capped another rousing concert at Festival Plaza. The crowd of several hundred was already upbeat when the unexpected proposal got under way. By the time it was over, they were almost delirious, applauding nonstop even as the happy couple wandered away.
The two have always been friends, Schalk explained. But until earlier in the year, he did not know she had romantic feelings for him. He went away to college and it was only after his sophomore year that he ventured to ask her out.
Schalk almost foolishly lost her, he said. He let school and other things get in the way of the blossoming relationship. There was distance between them, physical and otherwise.
“But the next year, we called, wrote letters, texted and emailed almost daily, and I began to fall in love from a distance,” Schalk said. “I surprised her on Valentine’s Day by flying home for one night to take her out, and on that night I knew I loved her and that I would marry her.”
And then the planning began. Schalk brought Simon aboard and a plan was hatched. Simon, the consummate showman, played it up big, describing the “gift package” in great detail before James was invited to the stage.
Musically speaking, the engagement became official between “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “God Bless America.”
For Schalk, the public proposal wasn’t just a matter of showing off. He also had a point to make.
“I was a slow starter in our romance,” Schalk said, “and it even took me a long time before I’d tell anybody that I had a girlfriend. I want to show her that all that is history, that I’m proud to love her, and that I’m willing to show the world.”
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