Wednesday, September 12, 2007

One Marriage License Please

Widower vows fight for marriage license

Charles Toole feels like he married Beverly Simon twice before she died.

The first time, Toole and Simon privately exchanged vows shortly after falling in love. The second time, their pastor performed the rites of holy matrimony in their bedroom a week before her death.

For many, that would be enough.

But Toole recently asked a judge to force the state to formally recognize their union by giving him the marriage license they always wanted but were denied by state law.

"This is not a matter of law; it is a matter of the heart," Toole said, tears forming in his eyes. "It is a matter of a promise I made, and come hell or high water, I'm going to fulfill that promise."

The Tarrant County clerk denied their marriage license. State law generally requires the bride or groom to appear to get the license.

At the time, Simon, 68 -- diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of adult leukemia -- was confined to home hospice care. Toole, 63, his own health failing, was afraid to leave her side.

"Bless her heart, I promised her that she would not leave this world under someone else's name," Toole said.

Personal John Wayne

When Toole and Simon met about six years ago, she was a widow not interested in having anyone else in her life.

Toole -- a tall former cop with sweeping white hair, a deep, gravelly voice and a penchant for cigars -- was a furniture salesman with multiple marriages behind him.

"Her friends weren't crazy about us getting together," Toole remembered. "I was a shark in the waters. ... When I met Beverly, looking back, I was an arrogant SOB."

Toole met Simon when she came to the Room Store looking for a headboard. They talked for about 15 minutes. He asked her out for a cup of coffee after. She called a week later, and they promised to take it slow.

But Simon knew. After their first evening together, she apparently looked into his eyes and told him she had "found her spot."

About two months later, Toole and Simon moved in together. Believers in marriage, they privately exchanged wedding vows and commemorated the day by signing a big blue Bible. That was on Nov. 17, 2001.

They wanted to get married formally, but Simon was concerned about losing the insurance coverage from her late husband's estate.

Mike Westfall, a former neighbor, had known Simon for years and was surprised by her whirlwind courtship with Toole.

"She trusted him with all she had emotionally and financially. ... When Beverly was in better health, they were like two peas in a pod. They did everything together, and they were the best of friends," he said.

The Rev. Murray Richey, Simon's pastor at John Knox Presbyterian Church and a friend for 27 years, said that while Toole is a gruff-talking bulldog of a cop, he appeared to be searching for something inside himself when he met Simon.

"He just brightened up her life, and she beamed when she was with him," he said.

Estranged from her children, Simon and Toole built a life around each other and their dog, Asia, a longhaired Chihuahua. Simon was Toole's "Bunny." He was her personal John Wayne.

"We celebrated each other, primarily. We didn't build a fence around ourselves, but we knew when push came to shove, there were two things we could depend upon: the good Lord and ourselves," Toole said.

In worsening health

Two years ago, Simon's health started to break down.

"The medical bills were just tremendous," Toole said. "Had we gotten married legally, she would have lost her insurance coverage, and, if you put a pencil to it, it would have been more than $1 million."

After visiting doctors across the state, Simon was diagnosed with adult-onset leukemia. This year, she began checking in and out of the hospital. In March, when her death was imminent, she was released for home hospice care.

Meanwhile, Toole's diabetes became so acute that doctors were pressuring him to go into the hospital to deal with clogged arteries in his leg. But he refused to leave Simon's bedside.

Remembering their conversations on the porch about how there was a cloud over their marriage, even though the law considered them a common-law couple, Toole decided it was time to tie the knot.

Toole, who works for attorney James Bearden as a private investigator, said he asked Bearden about getting a marriage license.

Bearden sent someone to apply for the license. Texas is one of only four states to allow third parties to apply for a marriage license, but that provision applies only when the couple are separated by military service or imprisoned.

Tarrant County Clerk Suzanne Henderson said her staff was simply following the law. "We try to abide by the law and treat all people fairly," she said.

Knowing Simon was near death, drifting in and out of consciousness, Toole asked Richey to come marry them anyway. On March 25, Toole and Simon were married at their home. "She could not say 'I do,' but I believe she heard me," Richey said.

One week later, on Palm Sunday, while wrapped in her husband's arms, Simon died.

'His mission in life'

Nicknamed "Bulldog" by Simon's nurses, Toole would not let go of the idea of getting a marriage license.

In late July, while recuperating from surgery on his leg, Toole told Bearden to file a lawsuit seeking to recognize Richey's marriage ceremony as official. Toole wants the clerk to issue a license and to change Simon's name to Beverly Simon Toole.

Bearden said there isn't any financial motivation for Toole. Simon willed her belongings to him in 2002. "Old Charlie told her he would try to do this, and it is his mission in life to have it as a sanctified marriage," Bearden said.

Toole likes to compare the love he and Simon had to the famous O. Henry story about the young couple who are poor but want to give each other special gifts for Christmas. To buy a chain for his gold watch, she cuts off her beautiful long hair. But he sells his watch to buy her a set of silver combs for her hair.

"When I buried her, I had silver combs placed in her hair and two in her hands. I took one of them from her hand, and it's in the jewelry box now," Toole said.

"I've never broken a promise to her, and she's never broken one to me, and it ain't going to start now."

Proxy marriage

Texas law requires that the bride or the groom appear at the county clerk's office to apply for a marriage license. If both applicants are absent but still want a license, they must provide an affidavit showing that:

-- The applicants are on active duty as members of the federal or state armed forces.

-- The couple are confined in a correctional facility.

Marriage fraud ring

Until 2005, two individuals could get a marriage license in Texas without appearing at the county clerk's office.

A "marriage license ring" changed all that. Through the ring, one woman was allowed to get married 150 times without ever getting a divorce, as part of an effort to help illegal immigrants stay in the country, said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham.

Kolkhorst sponsored the legislation at the request of the state's clerks. She called Toole's situation unfortunate.

"I think this is an extreme situation, and you can't write the perfect law," she said.

Curbside service

Tarrant County Clerk Suzanne Henderson said her office tries to work with people in similar situations. While she said she does not believe state law allows clerks to issue licenses off-site, Henderson said her office has offered curbside service.

"Sometimes couples in nursing homes want to get married, and they will drive down here and we'll meet them at the curb," Henderson said. "Somebody could have loaded up one of them, and we could have helped them."

Source: Texas Family Code

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