Alejandra Quintanilla and Matej Pec needed to get back to work at the Rock and Mineral Physics Lab at the University of Minnesota. But first, there was something important to do.

“This is a good place to get married,” Pec said, taking in the afternoon sun from the atrium of the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. They were surrounded by 27 other couples awaiting their own nuptials in what has become a Valentine’s Day tradition.

The couple met about three years ago at a geology conference in New Hampshire. Quintanilla was finishing her doctorate at MIT, but Pec had already started his postdoctoral research in Minnesota. He flew to Boston to see her every month.

Mark Zimmerman, their boss and one of the wedding’s witnesses, said it was only natural to bring Quintanilla on board at the U. “We thought it would be a good idea to hire her to keep him in the state,” Zimmerman said with a laugh.

Quintanilla is from Mexico and Pec is from the Czech Republic, so they will have another ceremony with family and friends in Prague later this year. But they were ready to tie the knot. In honor of the holiday, she wore a red lace dress, while he sported a red necktie.

“We just found out a few weeks ago that they were doing this, and it looked like a fun thing to do,” Quintanilla said.

Over the past four years, Hennepin County judges have married more than 100 couples at the free pre-Valentine’s Day wedding ceremonies. District Judge Gina M. Brandt has been part of the event every year since it started in 2013.

“It’s an honor to be part of a day that they’ll always remember,” Brandt said. “I usually only do the most serious cases, like felonies and murders, so this is a nice break to see everyone so happy.”

As the couples prepared to marry, lunchgoers bustled through the skyways and a small group of Black Lives Matter protesters gathered.

“I’m walking through the Hennepin County Government Center, and on one side we have some kind of serious news conference and then there are about 100 people getting married,” Jeremy Wieland told his wife on the phone. “It’s kinda funny. Nice contrast.”

Colleen Gegen and Denise Testa decided that morning to get married.

“We’ve been together for 22 years,” Gegen said. “It’s like everything changed, but nothing will change for us getting married.”

Gegen heard about it on the radio and texted Testa, because their marriage license would have expired on Monday and it was the perfect time to sign the papers.

“We feel like we’ve been married, but it wasn’t legal,” Testa said. “It’s not hard for us to do it. It’s just it wasn’t a priority, but we need the legal benefits.”

Gegen and Testa were joined by about five happy witnesses — the friends and family members who could make it with two hours’ notice.

Andre Turner, 29, and Crystal Flowers-Turner, 28, were excited to be married three years after getting engaged and having their daughter, Amiya, who turned 3 on Monday.

The couple met on Facebook five years ago.

“He kept messaging me ‘Hi,’ ” Flowers-Turner said. “I kept ignoring him, but eventually I decided to respond.”

Flowers-Turner had a series of three strokes after her daughter was born. To the relief of her family, she now is in good health.

“We didn’t want to rush into getting married, but we decided to jump in and now is a good moment for it,” she said. “And it’s free.”


Zoe Peterson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.