David Weinlick took his last breath on Sunday, ending a love story set in motion nearly 20 years ago when he allowed his friends to pick his bride and then married her five minutes later in the Mall of America.

It was a moment that propelled Weinlick and Elizabeth "Bethy" Runze into the national limelight as they each said "I do" in the mall's massive rotunda. Weinlick, who was diagnosed with colon cancer about a year ago, died Sunday at age 48.

"If someone would have told me on the day of the wedding that you're going to marry this stranger and you're going to have this awesome relationship and fantastic love but it's going to end when he's 48, do you still want to do it? I'd say yeah," Bethy Weinlick said Tuesday evening.

"I ended up with the greatest love story of my life," she said.

Weinlick's unconventional way of finding a wife began with a joke years earlier.

Tired of being asked when he was going to get married, he'd reply, "June 13, 1998."

With the date nearing and no bride in sight, longtime friend Steve Fletcher and now first-term Minneapolis City Council member suggested structuring the wedding like a political convention. The 28-year-old groom-in-waiting turned to the arranged marriage process.

He and a friend issued news releases, recorded a commercial and placed an ad in the Minnesota Daily. Naysayers said it was a great way to meet people but not necessarily a good way to start a marriage. Odds were the marriage wouldn't last, they said.

Weinlick was undeterred. "I think love develops," he said at the time. "It's not just there."

Hundreds of women applied to be Weinlick's bride.

"Something about this was calling me," Bethy Weinlick recalled on Tuesday. "Sometimes you have to open yourself up to those things that you can't make sense of at the time."

The mall hosted a bridal campaign mixer for the final 28 candidates, and David's family and friends overwhelmingly chose Bethy Runze.

The memory of that day is forever etched in her memory. There in the basement of the Mall of America, Weinlick, dressed in a tux, stood there smiling and crying. "He came over to me, got down on one knee, put his hands out to mine and asked: 'Will you marry me?' "

Opposites fit together

In some ways it's hard to explain why a marriage on a whim would turn into a long-lasting love story. They were opposites. He was an energetic extrovert, she an introvert who prefers a good book and a nice nap.

"We just got each other," she said. "We filled each other's weaknesses … so we became solid. He understood me like nobody else and I understood him." He called her sweetie; she called the 6-foot-5 man her "Big Love."

Life had its ups and downs, but their marriage didn't, Bethy Weinlick said.

When asked, neither could point out a fault of the other. It was 20 years of perfection, she said, wanting to give a lot of credit to the stranger she married in 1998. As father of their four children, he had the right combination of gentleness and goofy.

He was funny, always the optimist, and larger than life, Bethy Weinlick said. "He kind of sucked people in and became a hub of love and energy."

When the doctor gave him the terminal cancer diagnosis last year, Bethy Weinlick thought only the worst.

Dave Weinlick said, "We got this." He knew he wasn't going to beat the cancer, but he was going to make the most of the life he had left. So he took his wife and kids to the Grand Canyon and Disney World.

A missed future

But it was hard the last year, Bethy Weinlick said, not knowing whether it was going to be the last Fourth of July together or the last Thanksgiving. She thought about what would not be — he won't walk his daughters down the aisle or play with his grandkids.

"We're not going to have a future together," she said. "That whole plan that the kids would leave home and we're going to buy a motorcycle with a little sidecar and drive around the U.S., that's all gone now. So that's really sad."

But there are no regrets, she said. "If I had to chose between almost 20 years of fabulous or the other door of 60 years of average, I'll take the 20 years of fabulous."

So on Sunday, Bethy Weinlick held her husband during the last eight hours of his life.

Most of all, Weinlick's unconventional route to the altar will provide one of the lasting lessons for their children, ages 16, 15, 12 and 9.

"I tell my kids that there are going to be times when you're drawn to a person, a job or a situation or an experience and you might not be able to say why it's drawing you in, but you have to recognize it," Bethy Weinlick said. "We think we can plan life, but sometimes you have to be open to these callings. Trust that and your adventure will reveal itself."

Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.