Nine years ago, Marty Finkle and Mike Plake became New Jersey's first gay domestic partners in a midnight ceremony at South Orange Village Hall, pledging to return when they won the right to marry.
They didn't expect to wait so long. But when the clock struck 12 on Monday, there they stood, in the same place, holding hands and nearly in tears as they exchanged vows.
"A lot of people fought a very long fight in the state of New Jersey for us to be allowed to be married," Plake said afterward. "We wanted to stand in this place as quickly as we could possibly do it, and be part of history."
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Unlike their 2004 experience, when few New Jersey municipalities bothered to open early on the day that domestic partnerships became legal, there was a rush this time to be among the first to wed same-sex couples. Officials around the state, from Newark in the north to Lambertville in the west to Asbury Park on the shore, opened offices at midnight to welcome residents wanting to marry.
The stampede came after a Friday ruling by the state Supreme Court that denied Gov. Chris Christie's request to block same-sex marriages while he appealed a lower court ruling that made them legal. The Supreme Court said the marriages could begin on Monday because the governor was unlikely to win.
The move made New Jersey the 14th state to legalize gay marriage.
Couples dashed to fill out marriage applications, as gay marriage advocates sought ways to sidestep New Jersey's three-day waiting period so they could legally wed at midnight. It wasn't immediately clear early Monday how many succeeded.
Many of the first to exchange vows were couples who had already wed in other states. Others showed up to fill out their applications and participated in ceremonies that were largely symbolic until their weddings became official 72 hours later.
In South Orange, a town that prides itself on its progressive politics, it was practically assumed that officials would open up Village Hall at midnight on Monday. The century-old building was recently closed for renovations, but Mayor Alex Torpey had it opened for the occasion, giving the event an improvisational feel. Minutes before it began, staff members were still setting up flags and looking for chairs. About two dozen people — family, friends and activists, mostly —- showed up to watch.
"This is a milestone, not only for LGBT couples, but it's a milestone for South Orange, where the first domestic partnership was performed," Torpey said. "We opened at midnight in 2004, so we thought it would be appropriate to open up again and show our support. It's the strongest statement we can make."
He said it didn't matter whether South Orange performed the state's first same-sex marriage, or if it was one of the many other towns. "We're all the first," Torpey said.
One of the first to arrive was Bill Calabrese, who was mayor in 2004 and presided over Finkle and Plake's domestic partnership ceremony. Calabrese's eyes got misty remembering it.
Calabrese said he'd never cried at a wedding he'd performed. But on that day, he couldn't help himself. "They were so emotional, so into each other, and I felt like I was doing something truly wonderful," Calabrese said. "I saw how much it meant to them."
When it was over, Calabrese made Finkle and Plake promise to come back to get married.
Monday's ceremony marked the fulfillment of that pledge.
"I want to thank them for what they did and how they completed my life tonight," Calabrese said.
Finkle, 54, whose struggle for a domestic partnership began with his failed attempts to include Plake, 50, as his health care beneficiary, has since become a prominent gay marriage advocate.
They've taken advantage of every expanded right available to them. When New Jersey made it legal for same-sex partners to form civil unions, Finkle and Plake did it. When it became legal in New York to get married, they went to Manhattan to wed — even though they believed that New Jersey would eventually follow. They just didn't want to delay obtaining all the legal benefits and protections of spouses.
But being legally wed in New Jersey was the culmination.
Finkle, an Eagle Scout, likened it to earning their "life scout merit badge."
"It's been a long fight," he said.
At that, everyone in the room applauded.
A few hours later, in neighboring Maplewood, Mayor Victor De Luca began presiding over marriages, starting at noon to accommodate couples who didn't have quite enough time under the 72-hour waiting period to get married at midnight.
To set the tone, a public works crew raised a rainbow gay-rights flag over town hall and a jazz quartet performed in the township council chambers, concluding with the song "Here's to Life," with the closing refrain, "Here's to life, here's to love, and here's to you."
First down the aisle were Cynthia Kern, 43, and Tara Benigno, 38. When their vows were completed, they embraced and kissed as the audience whooped.
Kern and Benigno, who have two children, have been together for 14 years, and had already formed a domestic partnership in New York and a civil union in New Jersey. They didn't plan to be the first same-sex couple to wed in town, but they didn't want to wait any longer than possible.
"We're not marriage activists per se," Kern said. "But it was important to us — largely to protect our family, but also to acknowledge for the first time in New Jersey that we're being recognized as existing and being real."