James & Richard: A Surprise Proposal at the Jefferson Hotel Made the Yuletide Gay
By Casey Dokoupil & James Millner
Introduction by the FUTURE GROOM
By James Millner
On December 29, 2016, Virginia Pride President, James Millner, proposed to his partner of five years, Richard Gordon, in front of dozens of their family and friends in the lobby of the Jefferson Hotel. The proposal was the culmination of an elaborate scavenger hunt devised by James and the LGBT event company, EQ Events, that sent Richard on a tour of places across Richmond that have played a significant role in their relationship.
“Richard has dropped many hints over the years that he wanted a big, public proposal,” James explained. “To me, there’s nothing grander and more public than the lobby of the Jefferson at Christmas, so that’s what I did.”
To maintain the element of surprise, James planned the proposal to coincide with Richard’s birthday. “I figured he would think he was being led to a birthday surprise and not think this was a proposal. I was right.”
A SURPRISE ENGAGEMENT AT THE HISTORIC JEFFERSON HOTEL
By, Casey Dokoupil
The golden tones of the Jefferson Hotel’s historic lobby during the holiday season seemed to evaporate the cold air clinging to the coat of each guest as dozens of them blew in, their cheeks pink with anticipation as much as the chill of winter. It was just few days before the New Year, a time already filled with a seasonal glow. Nowhere was that sense warmer than the little paneled room where family and friends gathered, eager to support a man very much in love. It was a carefully-planned proposal, the scheme for which had begun not just months, but years earlier.
As guests gathered to hug a nervous but overjoyed James, a confused Richard was on a wild journey across Richmond. Several years before, when they were first dating,
James had created a scavenger hunt for Richard’s birthday that sent Richard searching all over town, leading him to a romantic greeting in the Jefferson Hotel. Cleverly, when James first approached EQ Events (EQ) to plan his proposal, that memory inspired his plan to surprise Richard. A new birthday scavenger hunt should – and did – keep Richard from figuring out that James was actually about to propose. Rhyming clues developed by EQ (when we say we’re full-service, we are not kidding) sent Richard hustling to iconic Richmond locations—from dinner at the VMFA, to surprise cocktails at Quirk Hotel with friends who just happened to be there, to a private drag performance at the Broadberry by the inimitable Michelle Devereaux Livigne, a friend of James. Each stop had to be perfectly timed, to ensure that James’ glowing guests would be standing on the grand staircase at the right moment, when Richard walked in.
Meanwhile, as family and friends excitedly sipped their cocktails and the moment of arrival came near, we kept a careful eye on Richard’s real-time geolocation. As time passed, the room took on a brighter quality, punctuated by the thud of emptying glasses and the tittering of people who would shortly be relieved of a secret. When we could delay no longer, we led the parading crowd through the hall to Richmond’s grandest staircase where they were easily guided into place. James took his place, and so did we. As an air of curiosity quickly swept across the crowded lobby, we waited in silence for Richard to arrive.
With guests partly obscured from view by the still-shimmering Christmas tree in the center of the lobby, James concealed himself behind one of the lobby’s many massive pillars, photographer Shawnee Custalow hid by an antique screen, and EQ planners crouched behind a sofa. It was a mass effort to keep James’ secret until the very last possible moment. Several hotel guests asked what was happening and, upon learning our plot, joined in our excitement. Some even volunteered to be a part of our scheme by playing nonchalant observers of the Jefferson’s ornate holiday decorations. It was like a scene from a play in which an unsuspecting audience member is pulled onstage to play the title role.
When Richard entered the room, watching the realization wash over him was a delight words cannot express. As he walked to the desired location in front of the grand staircase, EQ gave the signal for guests to raise the signs that spelled out the question James wished to ask. As Richard slowly read the signs and gazed at the grinning faces of his loved ones, he gripped the arms of the friends who had escorted him for support. Snap, snap! sounded the camera. James emerged from his hiding spot, walked over to Richard and on bended knee popped the question. Richard struggled not to cry as he said “YES!”
The crowd gasped in delight as the newly-engaged couple embraced, their family and friends cheering with genuine relief and a sense that they had witnessed something transformative—not just for the couple; but, also for the Richmond community and society as a whole. Every proposal is an act of bravery. Yet, there was something magical in what Richard inspired James to design that starry evening.
Returning upstairs, the clinking of glasses resumed once more, this time punctuated by enveloping hugs, easy laughter, and Richard’s still-shocked smile melting into a cozy familiarity with his family, friends, and grinning fiancé. All of the time, creative energy, and careful planning James invested into the occasion created the perfect memory for the couple, not to mention a very happy groom-to-be. Romance has a character all its own—one that grows differently with each couple. In the case of James and Richard, it is elaborate, communal, expressive, and elegant.
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