'You know you can't let her slip away.'

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010; E10

If you ask William Milligan's mother, she'll say her son's marriage was arranged by the pope.

Which is fitting, because she'd been praying for it for so long.

And so had he -- recently, anyway.

The New Jersey native had always pictured himself with a wife and children, but years ticked by and it didn't happen. He was busy buying a condo, working on a congressional campaign, establishing a political fundraising and event planning company, taking beach trips with the disparate sets of friends he'd acquired through the years.

"It was probably when I turned about 37 that I was like, 'All right, I gotta get married -- my friends are done having kids,' " he says.

But what can come easily in those post-college years of kickball teams and group houses is often harder once a decade has passed and friendly single faces start to seem scarce. It had been several years since Milligan's friends saw him in a serious relationship. There were a lot of first dates and a few that turned into three- or four-month flings, but inevitably a red flag would go up, or it would become apparent that Milligan and his dates had different goals in life. He would be back where he began, trying to keep his chin up.

"When you date for a long time, it can be a little laborious, and you can get down," says Milligan, now 39. "My whole approach was to just keep trying to meet people. I would always be open to dates."

But it was business he had on his mind when he offered to help out with Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Washington in April 2008.

"I thought it would be a good learning experience, good business development to work on a huge event like this," recalls Milligan, who runs WM Fundraising & Events. So the Archdiocese of Washington made him a volunteer coordinator and he "ended up working with a bunch of little church ladies for six weeks leading up to it."

On the Saturday before the pope's Mass at Nationals Park, Milligan led an effort to stuff 55,000 goody bags with ponchos and prayer cards. Standing next to him was a 20-something woman with lots of questions, including: "Are you seeing anyone?" and "Can I set you up with my sister?"

Arlyn Stokes was always doing that. Her big sister Anslie was fiercely smart, determined and successful, but also sometimes reserved. She would date on occasion, but it was never the priority her career had been. "I was like, 'Ehhhh, it'll be fine! I'm not worried,' " says Anslie, 30. Arlyn was "worried enough for me."

Arlyn arranged for a group to gather at Old Glory in Georgetown. Once Anslie met Milligan, "it was sort of like it was only us talking, and everyone else was just there," she says.

He walked her to her car, got an e-mail address and arranged for a golf date soon afterward. When Stokes showed up with a cooler of beer, "I was like, 'Oh, okay, this will be fun,' " Milligan says.

Stokes is the type to dive in fully once she knows what she wants -- a year after giving up consulting to pursue real estate, she was named one of Realtor Magazine's top 30 agents under 30 -- so after a month of dating, she invited Milligan to meet her parents and three siblings on a family vacation in the Bahamas.

Milligan was initially taken aback by the offer -- "I was like, 'Wow, this is another step,' he recalls -- and took a few days to think about it before accepting.

"My family is very tightknit and you gotta be able to sink or swim," Stokes says. "So I was like, 'This is it -- this is where we'll find out' " if Milligan, an only child, could fit in with her boisterous clan.

Stokes's dad greeted Milligan at the airport with a cocktail, vanquishing his lingering anxieties about trip -- "and he did great," Stokes says.

But as much as Milligan was ready for coupledom, it still took some getting used to.

"Will was used to living life his own way, so there were some adjustments that were made," his friend Robert Dean explains. "You can imagine, you go from walking the Earth and being a single guy for 20 years to being in a committed relationship -- it takes time to work through some of that stuff."

On the occasion that Stokes found herself in the dark on Milligan's thinking, she would sanely ask him to "help me understand whatever it is that I don't understand -- and he would."

After nine months together, Milligan sold his condo and rented a house three blocks from the Glover Park home where Stokes was living with her sister. "It was a mental, physical, emotional move closer," he says. The two -- who have matching blue-green eyes, sandy hair and rosy complexions -- joined the same parish, merged their circles of friends, started swimming together in the mornings and dining together at night.

"We're just on the same page with a lot of stuff," says Stokes. Unlike previous relationships, this one was "no stress. It was just fun and easy."

By the summer of 2009, the longtime bachelor was thinking about marriage. "You realize that you're in a great relationship and all the things you've always hoped for have kind of come to fruition -- it's time to stop messing around," Milligan says. "One of my friends said, 'You know you can't let her slip away.' "

On a trip to visit friends in Colorado in August, Stokes and Milligan went to Mass at a remote Benedictine monastery. After the service, they climbed to a hilltop, where Milligan knelt down to propose.

Before a Feb. 13 reception at the Fairfax Hotel, the two were wed at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown. In his homily, Monsignor Peter Vaghi quoted a line from a speech Pope Benedict gave while in Washington: "Marriage is essentially an unconditional and unreserved 'yes' to life. A 'yes' to love."

"To see [Milligan] in this situation was really touching," Dean says. "We were all eager for him to find the right person.

"It was the right timing for him. He was looking for someone he could share his life with, and he found her -- lucky rascal."

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