Performing 1,000 weddings in about 23 years, Bill Moeller has seen it all: romance; joy; families coming together; people starting new lives; even sometimes love enduring complicated situations.
But none of these things were the reason he got ordained to perform weddings. In fact, it was basically a whim that brought Moeller, 88, of Centralia into the weddings business.
When he was ordained by the Universal Life Church on Oct. 27, 1971 Moeller was a Centralia College student and had recently built a geodesic dome on Logan Hill with the intent to live off the land. Moeller, who is also a columnist for The Chronicle, said when he was ordained by the Universal Life Church, it was something a lot of people were doing at the time and he didn’t have any concrete idea of exactly what he would do with the license once he got it. The license itself was $10, though that remains a regret to him today.
“I had their address so I just sent them $10, but I found out later that if I had sent $15 I would have become a bishop,” Moeller said with a laugh. “So, for an extra $5 I could have been a bishop.”
The Universal Life Church is a non-denominational community that considers all forms of religion equal. The church still offers ordination to perform legal marriage ceremonies to anyone older than 13, although today ordination is offered free online. An ordination certificate runs $18.
Moeller grew up in Tacoma in a very religious family, attending a parochial school associated with the Missouri Synod of Lutherans and later a private boarding school in Portland. He moved to Centralia in 1960s to take a job with KELA, where he was an announcer for 30 years. He also worked for two years for KITI, originating the “Let’s Talk About It” program. Besides being a columnist for The Chronicle, many people know Moeller as a former city councilor and mayor as well as a thespian and bookstore owner.
Fewer perhaps know that he also performs weddings. Though his ordination occurred in 1971, he didn’t actually perform his first wedding until 1990 when two close friends got married. Moeller said he had no intention of doing anything else with his Universal Life Church certificate until 1993 when he mentioned it to then Lewis County Auditor Gary Zandell. The Lewis County Auditor’s Office is where couples in Lewis County go to apply for marriage licenses.
“(Zandell) said ‘If you’re a minister why not start doing weddings?’” Moeller recalled of his conversation with the then auditor. “So, I made up a card and put it on their counter and that’s that. So, it was at his suggestion.”
This November, Moeller performed his 1,000th wedding. Reaching the number is no small task considering it means he has attended an average of more than 40 weddings per year every year since he began putting his card on that desk. Moeller said he almost couldn’t believe it himself earlier this year when he realized he was nearing the 1,000-wedding mark, though he said he does sometimes keep very busy as a minister for hire.
“I once did four weddings in one day on a Saturday,” Moeller recalled.
Moeller said he thinks some couples choose him as an officiant because he is not tied to a particular church or location. Many of his weddings are at different locales, including back yards and private homes, taverns, nursing homes, the deck of the Lady Washington and even the Lewis County Jail (where the bride and the groom say their vows from separate rooms).
“Probably the most unusual was performing the ceremony on the track at the Tenino Speedway between heats,” Moeller recalled. “That’s where the couple had met. Not on the racetrack, of course, but at the speedway.”
While Moeller said he can’t think of a place he would not consider performing a wedding ceremony, there is one line he does draw with his officiant gig: He will not do your ceremony as Mark Twain. Moeller began he famed Mark Twain impression in 1972 when he first became involved with the Evergreen Playhouse. His show, which traveled extensively in the time before he recently retired it, was always carefully researched and documented to include only true words and mannerisms from the famed writer. Which is why, out of respect for the character, Moeller will not take on the persona to perform nuptials.
“I do not believe it is something he would have done,” Moeller said.
In 2012, Washington State enacted a law making same-sex marriages legal and Moeller said since then he has performed three same-sex unions. And in 2015 in another first he presided over two weddings for children of people he had married. There have been many touching moments, such as getting to officiate for his own son’s wedding in his backyard or the recent elderly couple in the nursing home who seemed so in love. There have also been a number of funny moments, such as the best man who, when asked to produce the rings pulled a Cracker Jack box out his jacket. Or the father of the bride who had an unusual comeback.
“When I asked, ‘Who gives this woman to be wed?’ He said, ‘Free, to a good home,’” Moeller said with a laugh.
Moeller said he very seldom hears from any of the couples after the wedding ceremonies so he does not know what percentage of the 1,000 couples are still living in wedded bliss. And in reflecting on number 1,000 Moeller said he does not yet know how many more weddings he will perform. Moeller said as he has gotten older he has pulled away from many things he loves including the Mark Twain performances and acting in local plays because he fears his health could get in the way of him fulfilling obligations. He said he has recently considered pulling back and only committing to ceremonies for close family and friends.
“I’m getting on in years and I don’t know if I make an appointment for a wedding two weeks from now if I’m going to make it,” he said.
But no matter how many more weddings are in his future, Moeller said the experience has been one that he will cherish. He said being an officiant has provided him with extra income but there is more than money that has kept him going all these years.
“It’s fun,” he said, “and I get to meet a lot of people.”