Betsy & Robert Cloninger: Before God and this company
What do Facebook, Rwanda and Diet Dr Pepper have in common? They all played a role in the love story of Fort Smith natives and newlyweds Robert and Betsy Walker Cloninger.
Although both are from Fort Smith, the two never met until Betsy was halfway around the world and Robert was home serving as a minister. But thanks to the power of social media (and some persistent friends), the two began chatting and a romance bloomed. The result was a beautiful pairing and a grand wedding celebration.
It began when Robert messaged Betsy on Facebook in October 2011. Having just moved back to Fort Smith, he began hearing about “this Betsy girl” from members of his church.
After several mentions of her name, Robert decided to take a chance. Betsy was teaching and doing missions in Rwanda when she was first “introduced” to Robert.
“I received a message from this guy back home asking me to coffee. I wasn't sure what to think and asked my friend. She replied, ‘If a pastor asks you to coffee, it's a date’,” joked Betsy.
During her remaining six weeks in Africa, the two messaged each other.
“Despite the eight-hour time difference, we talked almost every day. We really hit it off and made plans to meet,” said Betsy.
The two spoke for the first time by phone when she landed in Chicago. On her first full day back, they had their first date.
“He wanted to cook me dinner and mentioned that he was running to Target,” explained Betsy. “I was like, Target! I hadn't been to Target in months. So, he showed up with a Diet Dr Pepper, which I had also greatly missed, and took me to Target. I knew quickly that he was it.”
In September 2012, Robert took Betsy to dinner and told her he had a present for her. “I held the box the whole way there, not having a clue my ring was inside,” explained Betsy. “We chatted on the way about how we planned to wait several months to get engaged and married. He really fooled me!”
Once they were at Taliano’s, Robert asked Betsy to open the box.
“Inside I found a Bible with Song of Solomon 2:16 highlighted, and a bookmark that said ‘Pastor's Wife’ with the ring tied to it. He then came over, got on one knee and proposed.”
Once engaged, the two began the planning process.
“We knew we would have a large number of guests, with family and friends and our churches,” said Robert, who serves as the executive pastor at First United Methodist in Fort Smith. In addition to their congregation, the pair invited members of Goddard United Methodist, where Robert's mother serves as associate pastor and where Robert attended as a child.
Approximately 600 guests were in attendance.
The couple hired wedding coordinator Mary Ann Sandifer with I Do Wedding Consulting, to oversee the planning. As with any event, it couldn't go off without some sort of hitch.
“We booked our reception at the Phoenix Expo,” said Betsy. “Then, my wedding planner called and asked if I was sitting down. She informed me that the property had sold and the expo was closing. Of course, our invitations had already been printed, so we had to order new ones.”
They quickly switched to the Fort Smith Convention Center, which fortunately had an opening on their wedding date.
Despite the reception site hiccup, the big day went smoothly. The two were wed at First United Methodist on July 27, 2013. Betsy dazzled in a white, strapless Romona Keveza gown that she found in Rogers, Ark., and walked down in the aisle in beautiful blue Kate Spade heels that perfectly coordinated with her wedding colors.
Flowers of white and warm summer hues were used for decor and in the bouquets.
Betsy and Robert worked hard to have the wedding reflect both of their personalities, as well as their deep commitment to God.
“We wanted our wedding to be more about worship and to be very Christ-centered,” said Betsy.
The service included communion for the entire wedding party and congregation. The pair also had chalices custom-made in honor of each of their late grandparents.
The couple opted to buck the attendants tradition and put their own spin on bridesmaids and groomsmen. In addition to their seven bridesmaids, seven groomsman, ring bearer and flower girl, each invited their good friends, who happened to be of the opposite gender, to be in their wedding party. Betsy's long-time pal Bob stood as her “groomsmaid,” while Robert's friend Lindsey served as his “bridesman.” Each wore coordinating outfits, Bob sporting a black tux with blue tie to match the girls' dresses, and Lindsey donning a black gown as her version of a tuxedo.
At the reception, guests were treated to drinks and dinner, catered by Emmy's German Restaurant. A decadent six-layer cake from Creative Kitchen adorned with fresh flowers was served, along with Robert's chocolate shamrock-shaped cake featuring an Irish claddagh. Guests danced to the tunes of the Don Bailey Jazz Combo and snapped pictures in the Funky Memories Photo Booth. Betsy and Robert then made their “sparkler” getaway in a friend's classic '56 Cadillac.
The two topped off their wedding celebration with a 10-day trip to Ireland, where they drove throughout the countryside visiting historic churches and sleeping in ancient castles.
“It was the perfect way to start our new marriage,” said Robert. “We had no real plan, only knowing where we planned to spend the night. It was great just taking in the beautiful country and spending time together as husband and wife.”