Alistair Howard, a captain in the Marine Corps, enters the Hunterdon County Clerk’s office, looking for advice. He’s on leave from duty in Japan, visiting his girlfriend, Nikki, and her family for Thanksgiving in 2011. While in town, he wants to marry Nikki, but doesn’t quite know how to get it done.
Mary Melfi, the county clerk, takes an instant liking to Alistair. Both her parents served in the Air Force, with her father being a career master sergeant. Energetic and outgoing, Mary embraces his nearly impossible mission to have a ceremony in four days. Besides walking him through the process of getting a license, she calls a local jeweler on his behalf and gives him her card to show the store owner. As they schedule a time for the ceremony, Mary asks how Nikki feels about such a quick wedding. He responds that he doesn’t know -- he hasn’t proposed to her yet. Watching the confident young marine saunter out to buy a ring, Mary thinks to herself: How does he know she’ll say yes?
As the county clerk of Hunterdon County, Mary sees hundreds of couples a year. They range from young people like Alistair to couples blending families to immigrants adhering to foreign cultures and traditions. While each is different, one factor remains constant: Mary doesn’t charge for her services, but encourages newlyweds to donate to a local shelter for victims of domestic violence. On their joyous wedding days, she hopes her couples give a gift to those not living happily ever after.
Mary first encounters the shelter as a city councilwoman about a dozen years ago. As she walks down Main Street in Flemington Borough on her way to lunch, she sees women hanging hand-painted T-shirts on a clothesline. She stops to inquire about the activity and learns that a local organization is participating in The Clothesline Project to help raise awareness of domestic violence. Instead of having lunch, she meets the executive director of the organization and joins in hanging the T-shirts.
Since Hunterdon is the fourth most-affluent county in America, residents are often too ashamed and embarrassed to admit they have a problem. “I’m embarrassed to say I didn't know educated women with means could be victims,” says Mary. “I got rid of the stereotypes and learned.”
Since then, Mary continues to support the shelter, now called SAFE in Hunterdon, by attending various events, including candlelight vigils for those who didn’t survive abuse. Besides raising money through the wedding donations, she participates in “Dancing with the Cars,” a competition patterned after the TV show, except held at a local Toyota dealership.
When she is elected county clerk in 2007, she sets a goal of raising $20,000 from her couples during her five-year term. Whatever people would like to pay her, she tells them to write their checks to SAFE instead. After achieving that initial goal, and winning re-election last year, Mary is trying to raise another $20,000 during her current term.
One bride gets very emotional when Mary explains the donations to SAFE. Previously in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage, she describes her escape and time of healing. “Now she’s ready to marry someone who loves her the way love is supposed to be,” Mary says. “It’s wonderful for me to see someone starting a new life.”
Each time checks arrive, accompanied by Mary’s distinctive, handwritten cards, they inspire the staff at SAFE. Donna Bartos, SAFE’s current executive director, particularly appreciates Mary’s tireless dedication. While Donna, an abuse survivor, naturally identifies with the cause, Mary has never experienced domestic violence. “It’s her choice to get involved and support us,” Donna says. “She could have chosen anything.”
Besides her local work, Donna advocates for the national Go Purple campaign. She strives to reclaim purple as the color for domestic violence awareness, almost always wearing something in that shade. Recently, she went shopping with Mary at Snapdragon in Flemington and fell in love with all the purple Brighton accessories, plus a handbag that Mary later gifted to her.
Four days after leaving Mary’s office, Alistair Howard walks back in the door for his appointment with Mary, this time in his formal dress blues. At his side, his bride Nikki looks absolutely stunning, as though she’s been preparing for this day for months. It turns out that her best girlfriend rallied their community to provide hairstyling, makeup, bouquet, accessories and a gorgeous wedding gown. Elated to see the beautiful couple, Mary says, “I guess she said yes!”
Then with love and joy, she unites the Howards in wedded bliss, proclaiming them best friends for life.