Alex Gabriel's grand proposal turned into something of a grand challenge when his fiance accidentally found out how he planned to pop the question.
Asking someone to be your lifelong partner traditionally comes with a level of surprise and creativity, but when his attempt at shock and awe failed, Alex did not throw up his hands in frustration. He decided to improvise by crafting a second plan which -- while it wasn't exactly a surprise -- meant a lot to him.
His proposal might not have included the extravagance he had initially hoped for, but Alex was determined to make his alternate plan work. His roundabout efforts led him and his fiance, Maura Manning, to be named the winners of The Times and Democrat's 2017 "Pop Goes The Question" contest.
The two 26-year-olds were both pleasantly surprised by the win.
"I was so surprised that we won. I think it's great because this story is so ridiculous. It's so us. Never a dull moment. I definitely knew something was up before the proposal, but I didn't think I was actually going to spoil the whole thing for him," Maura said.
Alex's and Maura's love story began with a friendship that blossomed after the two met as part of their participation in Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits and selects college graduates from top universities nationwide to serve as teachers.
It was after their third year of dating that Maura, a native of Roscoe, Illinois, began dropping hints about wanting to get married. The only problem was that the then-25-year-old Alex, a native of Grayling, Michigan, said he wasn't getting married until he was 32.
"When we first started dating, we were both 22. I was like, 'I don't want to get married until I'm like 32.' I was in no rush. I had two younger brothers, and one was in middle school. I had said, 'I'm not going to get married until my youngest brother is old enough to go to my bachelor party in Vegas,' and that was nine years away," Alex said, smiling.
Everything changed in the fall of 2016, when Alex decided that Maura was the one.
He had planned on inviting all of their friends to meet at the Cloud Gate Sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park on New Year's Eve. That's where he was going to deliver his surprise proposal just before a big engagement party.
"Everything was going to plan; however, I hit a major snag on Dec. 22," Alex said.
The couple had been vacationing in South Padre Island, Texas, with his family for Christmas. During their time there, they visited Sea Turtle Inc., a sea turtle rehabilitation center.
Maura asked to see the pictures they had taken of the turtles once they returned to their vacation condo to relax, but what Alex forgot was that he had saved a copy of his proposal plans to his phone.
"As I was looking at the vacation photos, I went one too far and saw my name. I began wondering, 'What is he talking about me for?' Unbeknownst to me, he had sent the whole plan to all of our friends of what he was going to do to propose," Maura said.
Alex added, "She didn't say anything to me at first," with Maura chiming in that she was uncomfortable and unsure of whether to tell him that she had found out about his plan or not.
"I knew she had read something she shouldn't have. She was like, 'No, I didn't,' but I knew she had," said Alex, who began texting his friends asking them what he should do next: stick to the plan or improvise.
"It was like Dec. 23, and I had planned on proposing on New Year's Eve. It was like eight days before then and I was like, 'This is going to be an awkward eight days.' I started texting my friends, and they said, 'Stick with the plan,'" Alex said. But he ended up with another plan.
He told his fiance, who knew something was going on by this time, that they would walk the beach to find the perfect spot to take a Christmas card photo for family and friends.
His brother, Logan, would serve as photographer.
"I got her to dress up nice, and then we were walking. We weren't really saying much, just kind of talking about the weather, I guess. I just tried to find the nicest spot. It was right at sunset. We took like two pictures, and I just went for it," Alex said.
Maura said even this proposal didn't come as a total shock.
"At this point, the jig is up. I 100 percent knew. I was like, 'Christmas card picture? Yeah, right.' Never has he ever wanted to take a Christmas card photo," she said, laughing.
Maura said there was no doubt in her mind, however, about wanting to marry Alex.
"I had known for a while that we were going to get married. There was really no question in my mind about saying yes. He didn't really say a lot, but I didn't need him to. I knew we had talked about it a lot before," she said.
"We had lived together for a while. He's let me bring home stray pets and people so I was like, 'This is definitely the one.' It was easy. I didn't think about it at all."
Maura recalled "the hard time" she had given Alex before she actually realized he had had a plan -- albeit foiled -- to make her his wife. His roundabout proposal was special to her "even though he had this whole elaborate plan and it kind of got totally sidetracked," she said.
"He just went with the flow and didn't really let it get to him. And it was still so nice to go out to the beach, which is really a place that we go a lot, and just have him propose there," Maura said. "It was even more special because we could show our family and celebrate with everyone at Christmas."
Alex said the time that he and his wife have spent together will make the transition to married life relatively smooth and easy.
"We had moved in together and basically done everything you need to do to make sure that this is the person you want to spend your life with. There's not going to be a difference between marriage and what we're doing now. It'll just be even more of a commitment," Alex said. "I just knew that I wanted to spend my life with her; I had said it was just time."
The couple moved to South Carolina in 2013 as part of the Teach for America program and have been here ever since. Alex had taught at Holly Hill Middle School for three years, while Maura had worked at Sedgefield Middle School in Goose Creek.
"We just kind of fell in love with the people and the weather. It was just a different feel from where we were from. People have a different M.O., especially in a small town like Holly Hill. It definitely has a strong community feel, and that's hard to replicate in other places," Alex said.
Maura said, "I really loved where I worked and the people I worked with. I loved teaching down there. I liked the weather and being able to go to the beach. Not having a winter after 22 years in Illinois was great."
The couple recently relocated from Santee to North Charleston.
"Maura took a job downtown, and I'm teaching at Goose Creek High School. I will be teaching biology and coaching football. Maura will be teaching kindergarten at Meeting Street Academy," Alex said.
The couple will marry on Saturday, June 9, 2018, in an outdoor ceremony on Gold Bug Island in Mt. Pleasant.
"It's not going to be a church wedding. It'll be more kind of laid-back and fun. We wanted to have a small wedding, but our family is so big. Maura has a huge family. I think her family alone is like 100 people, not including friends," Alex said.
Maura said, "My dad is the youngest of nine, and everyone has three kids. My mom is the youngest of five. Then I have 14 aunts and uncles, plus their children."
She said their families can look forward to the Southern hospitality and food that will be featured at the wedding.
"People are making a vacation out of it for sure. Our families are all from the Midwest, and we're going to give them a Southern feel. They're going to have barbecue. We're going to be showing them a good Carolina time," Maura said.
"I think they're excited," Alex said. "Part of the wedding ceremony will be outside, and the reception will be inside. They're not used to heat and humidity."
Children are also in the couple's plans.
"I don't know how soon, though," Alex said, with his fiance inviting him to "sit in" on her kindergarten class to get a feel for taking care of children.
In the meantime, the couple just want to cross one bridge at a time without making any assumptions on what married life will be like.
"We can't really know. I don't want to make any assumptions. I think it'll be pretty smooth," Alex said. "There's not going to be much changes. We spend a lot of time with each other, and we're best friends for sure."