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Ponder-Steele wedding was an unexpected duty for court commissioner

Stephen Dunlap visits a downtown Hudson business in this 2006 photo from a Star-Observer spread on the annual Candlelight Stroll.1 / 2
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder and ESPN reporter Samantha Steele were married Monday, Dec. 17, in Family Court Commissioner Stephen Dunlap's hearing room on the second floor of the St. Croix County Government Center. Dunlap's desk is at the front of the narrow room.2 / 2

St. Croix County Family Court Commissioner Stephen Dunlap had no idea that he would be conducting a celebrity wedding when he started the day on Monday, Dec. 17.

He was in his law office at Third and Locust streets that afternoon when his legal secretary, Faye Lackey, put a caller on hold and asked Dunlap if he had time to perform a marriage.

Dunlap, who was scheduled to talk with a client, said he would be free in about an hour.

"You're not going to believe this," Lackey told Dunlap when she got off the phone. He was going to conduct the wedding of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder and ESPN reporter Samantha Steele.

Lackey was right. Dunlap didn't believe it.

"I thought somebody up at the courthouse is pulling a joke on me. That's really what I thought when I went up there," Dunlap said in a phone conversation two days after the ceremony. "As it turns out, it wasn't a joke."

Ponder and Steele were wed in Dunlap's narrow hearing room on the second floor of the St. Croix County Government Center.

As a court commissioner, Dunlap is authorized to perform certain judicial functions, including conducting civil marriage ceremonies.

More often, he handles family court procedures, but he also does quite a few weddings, he said.

Dunlap described Ponder and Steele as "very nice, very happy, friendly."

"He didn't like the fact that I'm a Bears fan," he added with a laugh.

The couple had driven to Hudson by themselves. They applied for a $100 marriage license at the county clerk's office, and wanted to get married that afternoon.

The clerk's office apparently gave Ponder the names and phone numbers of court commissioners who might be available to perform the marriage.

Timothy Heckman, the full-time St. Croix County Circuit Court commissioner, was busy, so Ponder called Dunlap's office.

"Well, because I am a Vikings fan, I recognized the name," Dunlap's secretary said regarding the call. "And one of my nephews had put on Facebook, 'Will there be a Ponder-Steele wedding?' So when I asked what the bride's name was, it sort of clicked into place."

Lackey, too, described Ponder as a "very pleasant young man -- very polite."

"They wanted to keep it quiet," Dunlap said of the couple's reason for coming to Wisconsin.

Also, Minnesota doesn't allow couples to wed the same day they apply for their license, except in emergencies. In Wisconsin, you can marry the same day by paying an extra $10 fee.

Dunlap didn't want to disclose too much about the ceremony out of respect for Ponder's and Steele's privacy.

"It was pretty short. Not too long. Very intimate. It was myself and the couple and two witnesses," he said. "(It was) a standard civil ceremony. I do quite a few. They didn't have any specific request."

The witnesses were two female courthouse employees. The couple was dressed casually. Dunlap wouldn't say whether they kissed at the end of the ceremony.

"It was fun. I just wish it had been a little quieter for them," Dunlap said.

The Eau Claire Leader Telegram broke the news of the marriage the next day, including the fact that Dunlap had officiated the ceremony.

Soon after, Dunlap's office was receiving calls from sports writers far and wide.

"I can't believe the attention that this has caused," he said. "I've had calls from (KSTP-TV sports anchor) Joe Schmit, the Pioneer Press, the StarTribune - channel 11 is taking pictures. It's just unreal."

"The poor guy," Dunlap added. "They wanted to keep it quiet and, obviously, when you take out a marriage license things aren't kept quiet."

Dunlap has practiced law in Hudson since 1976. He grew up in Waukesha and is a Bears fan because his father was from Chicago.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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