Their Ring Bearer Was a Bear


Rita Janecek and Joseph Schaar had hoped to marry March 21 atop a glacier in Anchorage, but the coronavirus outbreak changed those plans.

“It was certainly disappointing,” said Ms. Janecek, 56, who met Mr. Schaar, 52, on Match.com in May 2015. The pair had a 93 percent compatibility rating that included a shared love of traveling the world to soak up history, explore exotic locales and observe wild animals in natural habitats.

“There were still some venues out there that we had passed on in favor of Anchorage,” said Ms. Janecek, a flight attendant based out of Orlando International Airport. “But we began to reconsider each of them as a possible Plan B.”

Ms. Janecek, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., has been to the Alaskan Rainforest multiple times. She was hoping to return there to look in on her favorite carnivoran — the kind with shaggy hair, long snouts, powerful torsos, stocky legs and large, non-retractable claws.

In short, Ms. Janecek has a thing for bears.

“I like bears too, but man, Rita is bear-crazy,” said Mr. Schaar, who graduated from Purdue with a degree in electrical engineering and now owns a digital marketing company in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the couple live.

Ms. Janecek, who also has a law degree, proudly admits to being a lifelong lover of bears. “I’ve always maintained that bears are the most gorgeous creatures on earth,” she said.

She had high praise for Mr. Schaar, too. “Talk about gorgeous, Joe was, and is, incredibly handsome,” she said. “I also thought he was charming and talkative and friendly, just a nice, normal guy and someone I felt very comfortable being around.”

Mr. Schaar said he was immediately taken by Ms. Janecek’s “incredible beauty,” and “admired the fact that she was so full of life.”

They spent much of their first two dates getting to know each other. Ms. Janecek told him that she was the oldest of two daughters by Elois Scott of Washington, and Daniel Skeen, who lived in Newport, R.I. Her mother retired as a researcher at the Department of Education in Washington. Her father, who died more than 20 years ago, was a Newport-based real estate developer.

Ms. Janecek had been divorced for about a year when she first met Mr. Schaar, and was already living in St. Petersburg, where her three grown daughters and four grandchildren also lived.

Mr. Schaar grew up in Chicago, the only son of Dolores Schaar and Joseph Schaar. Both parents worked for the Board of Eduction in Chicago. His mother retired as a special-education teacher. His father, who also died more than two decades ago, was a chief physical plant engineer.

Ms. Janecek also learned that Mr. Schaar had been divorced for roughly seven months and was living in Brandon, Fla., at the time he clicked into her life. He also has one adult son living in New Hope, N.J.

It was the couple’s third date, which was at the home of Ms. Janecek and lasted 10 hours, that proved to be a turning point in their relationship.

They spent much of the time in Ms. Janecek’s backyard, in the swimming pool and hot tub, eating a bit but drinking a bit more. Ms. Janecek, who owned two golden retrievers at the time, went so far as to ask Mr. Schaar to bring along his Labrador retriever.

“It was important to know if our dogs were compatible,” she said.

By night’s end, she wanted to know the same about herself and Mr. Schaar. “I told him that I really liked him a lot, and that if he would agree to stop seeing other people, I would also agree, and then we could just see each other exclusively.”

But Mr. Schaar had other ideas. “In previous conversations, she told me multiple times that she loved me,” he said, “but I didn’t really want to get married again, and we were really having a rough time over it.”

“But then some pretty tragic things happened within my circle of friends,” said Mr. Schaar, who declined to go any further regarding details. “As a result, I changed my mind,” he said, “and we continued dating.”

Four months later, they went on their first adventure together, a cruise to Alaska, where Mr. Schaar got his first look at the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary, where giant elevated walkways cut through the forest, offering them a magnificent view of black bears snacking on salmon and wolves feasting on mice tossed to them by workers standing behind fences.

They returned to Alaska in March 2018, and went ice fishing, snow shoeing and dog sledding on what Ms. Janecek described as “an Alaskan plane, train and automobile trip,” that took them from Anchorage to Fairbanks to deep inside the Arctic Circle.

“We went as far as the Dalton Highway, the last habitable place on the continent,” Mr. Schaar said. “And when I saw those northern lights, well, I’m not so sure I have ever seen anything that incredible anywhere on this earth.”

“On that same trip,” he added, “I was able to reach out and physically touch the Alaskan Pipeline, which totally satisfied the engineering geek in me.”

He proposed on Thanksgiving Day 2019, and they thought for sure they were heading back to Alaska to tie the knot when the coronavirus began making its presence felt.

Ultimately, they circled back to Monica Welde, the owner and chief executive of the Bearadise Ranch bear preserve, a licensed natural habitat facility, sanctuary and retirement community for bears in Myakka City, Fla. It was nearly 5,000 miles from Anchorage, but less than an hour’s drive from the couple’s home.

Ms. Welde had met the couple several years earlier at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, and they became friends. Even though they initially bypassed Bearadise as a wedding location, Ms. Welde was happy to have them back, and the couple were married there March 21, the same day they were to be married in Anchorage.

As a perk that no one appreciated more than Ms. Janecek, Ms. Welde supplied a ring bear-er, a 23-year-old “blonde bombshell,” as Ms. Welde called her, with a Hollywood pedigree who sported a fur coat that glistened in the bright Florida sunshine. She had three screen credits to her name, which was Carroll. (She appeared in the movie “Big Fish” and was used for animation purposes in “Brother Bear,” both released in 2003, and she later starred in a Toyota TV commercial.

Carroll, who also happened to be a 300-pound bear, pounced into action the moment John Ziegler, a Florida notary public, announced that the time had come to exchange wedding rings. With both a leash (held by Ms. Welde) and a small pillow containing the two wedding rings tied neatly around her neck, Carroll began walking slowly toward the couple, building drama with every step, as the couple’s 15 guests watched.

Carroll inched a bit closer to the couple, stopping at a designated spot a safe distance away. She allowed Ms. Welde to remove the pillow with nary a growl.

“It was so cool and so perfectly and professionally executed,” said Christina Kennedy, 28, a friend of the bride and fellow flight attendant who also sat a safe distance from Carroll. “It’s just not something you see every day.”

Shortly after, Ms. Janecek and Mr. Schaar were pronounced married, and as the newlyweds made their way out of Bearadise, Ms. Kennedy said she overheard the bride say to the groom, “I’d love for us to go on an African safari.”

When March 21, 2020

Where Bearadise Ranch Bear Preserve, Myakka City, Fla.

Hot Pants When the couple moved their wedding locale from Alaska to Florida, the groom forgot to switch his suit pants accordingly. He left the wool pants intended to keep him warm while standing on a glacier in his suitcase, and wore them for his Florida nuptials. “I was sweating the whole time,” he said.

Whale of a Time To celebrate Mr. Schaar’s 50th birthday, Ms. Janecek took him to Mexico, where he donned a snorkel and other diving gear and went underwater to observe giant whale sharks, at times inches away, swimming in their natural habitat. “It was one of the most spectacular things I have ever done in my life,” he said.



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