Phil Whitman knew the only way he’d be able to pull off a surprise marriage proposal would be to throw his girlfriend, Gabriella Lena-Murphy, off the track.
So, he planned a trip to Oneonta for her birthday weekend and filled it with one surprise after another.
Phil and Gabby met at SUNY Oneonta in October 2007 during their freshman year, over lunch with mutual friends at Wilsbach dining hall. They graduated in 2011 and had not been back to Oneonta since. For the past two years, they’ve lived in Raleigh, N.C., where Gabby teaches third grade and Phil designs swimming pools.
To celebrate Gabby’s birthday, Oct. 12, Phil told her he was taking her to New York for the weekend and had “a bunch of surprises” planned. When they set out on the 12-hour drive, he wouldn’t tell her where they were headed. It could have been Marlboro, where she grew up, or maybe even New York City. “I didn’t know where we were going,” she said, “but when I started seeing beautiful, rolling mountains, I thought, ‘We’re going to Oneonta!’ ” That was surprise No. 1.
On Friday night, the couple’s college roommates, Rachael Bracken ’11 and Kevin Peterson ’12, met them at the Clarion Hotel on Main Street for a night of reminiscing and celebrating, complete with their favorite late-night snack, Tino’s cold-cheese pizza, of course. Surprise No. 2.
The next morning, Phil and Kevin spent four hours painting “Gabriella Lena-Murphy Will You Marry Me?” on the cement wall at the intersection of West and Center streets, a sort of public billboard where Oneonta residents and students from SUNY Oneonta and Hartwick College have taken turns advertising events for decades. Rachel kept Gabby distracted with breakfast at Latte Lounge and a walking tour of the SUNY Oneonta campus. Once the wall was complete—including taping brown paper over the words for a big reveal— Phil texted Gabby and asked her to meet him for lunch at Brooks’ House of Bar-B-Q. When she arrived, her parents and several other family members were there. Surprise No. 3.
After lunch, Phil suggested a hike at Table Rocks. On the way, they drove by the wall and stopped to check it out. On one corner of the brown paper were the words, “Gabby, peel here.”
“I peeled it off and I thought it was going to say ‘Happy Birthday,’ said Gabby. The last surprise!
“She finally got it all off and I got down on one knee,” said Phil. “I don’t even think I said anything. I think she just turned around and jumped on me and hugged me, and then she started crying, and I started crying. It was an awesome moment.”
Afterward, the couple painted a pink heart with the word “yes!” on the wall and posed for pictures with family and friends. They’re planning an April 2016 wedding in Raleigh.