The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She won him and wed him at the Mall of America nearly 20 years ago. He died Sunday.

David and Elizabeth Weinlick pose for a photo at their home in Woodbury, Minn. (Kyle Potter/AP)

The bride, a fiery redhead with an infectious smile, wore a full-skirted white gown. The groom, a bespectacled, lanky 28-year-old sporting a ponytail, donned a classic black tuxedo. They said “I do” in front of family members, friends, reporters, photographers, TV crews and about 2,000 shoppers at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

It was a love story between two strangers that attracted global attention, launching David Weinlick and Elizabeth “Bethy” Runze into sudden fame.

He was the man who had allowed his friends and relatives to choose his wife, and she was the woman who received the most votes, beating out more than 20 other hopefuls.

Although many doubted the “Bachelor”-esque marriage would last, it spanned nearly two decades, only to be cut short when David, who was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer last year, died Sunday at age 48 with his wife by his side.

“He was a great husband and family man,” Bethy told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “He had a great love for life and people. We laughed a lot. We still did, right up until the end.”

The love story began when David was an anthropology student at the University of Minnesota dealing with people continually asking when he planned to get married.

“One night, people were talking about what they expected out of life … and I just said, ‘Oh, I’m going to get married on June 13, 1998,’ and I just said that,” he recalled in an interview last year.

As the date neared, David was still without a woman to marry. His longtime friend Steve Fletcher suggested an unusual approach: Model the search for a wife and the wedding itself after a political convention. Candidates vying to be his wife would have a chance to give speeches and interact with guests, who would then vote. The woman with the most votes would become David’s bride.

“I was the instigator and Dave said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” Fletcher told KSTP-TV on Tuesday.

They sent out news releases. They made a TV commercial and placed an ad in the Minnesota Daily, the university’s newspaper. And the “Campaign to Elect a Mrs. David Weinlick” was underway.

Bethy Runze, a 28-year-old pharmacy student at the University of Minnesota, was taking a break from final exams when she saw a story about David’s campaign in the Minnesota Daily. She immediately called her mother.

Her mother responded: “ ‘Well, honey, it might be the great love story of your life,’ ” Bethy recalled in an interview last year. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’m in.’ ”

On that Saturday morning, June 13, Bethy arrived at the Mall of America with her family. There, along with the other candidates, she campaigned, winning over the wedding guests with her willingness to work on a relationship, KSTP-TV reported.

“I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Bethy said before her election, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I think it’s a fabulous idea. I believe in it. I think it will work. All the building of the relationship will come after the marriage.”

Shortly after the votes were tallied, the couple wed in the massive rotunda of the mall. As they kissed, hundreds of maroon and silver balloons fell around them, in the style of a political convention, and thousands cheered.

“She’s very serious about it,” Annette Runze, Bethy’s mother, told the Associated Press at the time. “She’s very committed to the idea and so is he. They’ll probably be married 67 years.

After their wedding, the Weinlicks appeared on NBC’s “Today” show and “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the Star Tribune reported. They were even asked to be consultants for “The Bachelor,” then just a new reality dating show. The show’s premise, women competing against one another to win a proposal, was similar to the “democratic wedding” that brought David and Bethy together.

“We inspired those shows, but they missed the mark,” Bethy told the Star Tribune. “We didn’t want to attach our name to something where people sit around in hot tubs and kiss another person every night.”

The Weinlicks shared a normal life and a loving marriage. Bethy was a nurse and David worked for Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, according to KSTP. The couple had four children.

It seemed as though the Weinlicks were well on their way to fulfilling Annette Runze’s prediction that they would be married for 67 years. In March 2017, however, David was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer and given a year to live, the Star Tribune reported.

“We’re still coming to terms with the fact that the whole life we had planned together isn’t going to happen,” Bethy said at the time. “That is impossible to get your head around.”

In August, the couple returned to the place their love story began. In the main rotunda of the Mall of America, they renewed their vows.

'Life is Short' is Not a Cliché

19 years ago a guy walked into the Mall of America and said, “I’m getting married today.” The only problem? He needed to find a wife. #LoveWhatMatters

Posted by Love What Matters on Tuesday, December 26, 2017

“I feel like in a way if we had done it somewhere else it wouldn’t have had the same meaning,” Bethy said in a video, fighting back tears. “It was like reliving that day and what it’s been for 19 years and how happy we’ve been for 19 years. And also how sad I am that I’m not going to get 19 more.”

David expressed gratitude.

“Thank you, everybody, in case I forget, just thanks,” he said. “Honestly, it’s been a good life, it’s been a great ride. It’s crappy to get off, but every ride ends at some point.”

But, even given their short time together, Bethy told the Star Tribune that she would not hesitate to do it all over again.

“If someone would have told me on the day of the wedding that you’re going to marry this stranger and you’re going to have this awesome relationship and fantastic love but it’s going to end when he’s 48, do you still want to do it? I’d say yeah,” she said.

“I ended up with the greatest love story of my life.”