Jeremy Hart got a phone call in mid-June and received news he could barely keep to himself.
"He just can't keep secrets," his fiancée Heather Ellis said with a laugh. "He texted me and in all caps said, 'I HAVE REALLY EXCITING NEWS!'"
"But then I said, 'You have to wait until softball tonight,'" Hart said with a smile.
"I was like 'You are kidding me!'" Ellis replied as the couple laughed.
Playing recreational softball on Tuesdays, Ellis showed up to watch him play, waiting all afternoon to hear this news. Hart immediately approached her when she arrived telling her they won the News Tribune and HER Magazine inaugural "I Do" Contest, which earned them $500 in prizes from Hy-Vee and Ana Marie's Bridal.
Even though it was hard for him to contain his excitement about their contest win, Hart's discipline in keeping his proposal to Ellis at the Grand Canyon a surprise helped him score the most votes in the online contest among more than 25 other entries.
Hart and Ellis' love story started long before their trip to Arizona in March 2017. Both are Jefferson City natives, with Hart graduating from Helias High School and Ellis from Jefferson City High School.
Hart started working at the Jefferson City Country Club about 10 years ago when he was 16 as a bag boy. He worked his way up through the company, now holding the position of clubhouse manager and a right-hand man to the general manager.
Hart went to college at University of Missouri in Columbia, majoring in English and German, and that's when he met Ellis.
"We were friends for about a year before we started dating," she said, noting that was in late 2010/early 2011. Hart asked Ellis for their first Valentine's Day date at McDonald's.
"Uh-huh," she said laughing. "It started out very casual because we were all broke college kids."
"I'm sure I elected to spring for the second hash brown and a large orange juice," he said, as the couple laughed.
After high school graduation, Ellis went to Merrill University, graduating in 2012 and becoming a hairstylist. She now works at Salon Va'Lise off East Dunklin Street.
March was a good time for the couple to take some time off, so they decided to plan a vacation to Arizona in last year.
"When we were in the planning stages of our vacation, the idea started springing up in my head to propose," he said. "It was about two or three weeks before we left that I had lunch with her dad. I had to tell a little bit of a fib one day."
Hart told Ellis he and his boss were checking out another country club in Columbia, allowing him time to pick up the engagement ring and meet with her father, asking his permission to marry his daughter. Hart then hid the ring for a few months, with Ellis walking by it 50-some times.
"It was nerve-wracking," he said with a laugh, noting he also put it in his backpack on the airplane out to Arizona not wanting to risk losing it in a checked bag. "So, I had it sitting right by her in my backpack the whole time. I would imagine she (would) start to catch on."
One day during the vacation, the couple decided to road trip south to Sedona, stopping by the Grand Canyon along the way. Hart insisted he take his bag to safeguard his ring for the surprise proposal.
"At a certain point, 'Simple Man' by Lynyrd Skynyrd came on the radio. Heather looked over and said, 'Man, you are being awful quiet.' I said, 'No, no,' shaking my head. I was so nervous."
"He is nervous, and I am sitting there just looking around at all the scenery," she said with a smile.
After visiting a few stops, they were on the last stretch of the scenic highway and came to a place called Grandview Point, walking into the canyon on a trail. There was one spot they found that would be a great place to pop the question, but people started to come down the trail. As they hiked back up, he found a secluded spot and knew it was it. Hart also insisted Heather use her tripod to take a full picture of them at the Grand Canyon, not just a arm-length selfie.
"We couldn't get her tripod thing to work. While she was fiddling around with it, I pulled the ring real quick out of my backpack, and by this point, I don't even know how I'm getting words out," he said, noting he could feel his heart beating hard in his chest.
Without the camera tripod to work, he came across a German tourist and asked if she would take a photo. "I whisper I am about to propose, and she just lights up. It was so great that she happened to be a photographer, too."
Hart got done on one knee, proposed and the photographer was able to capture the moment with excellent scenery of the Grand Canyon all around them.
"We got really, really lucky with that; it was great to look back on," Ellis said. "It was very shocking when he proposed."
"We are still not entirely sure she said yes," Hart said with a laugh.
"I did," she said laughing. "I was so excited and completely surprised. It was a very happy moment for both of us."
When the "I Do" Contest was announced in the News Tribune and HER Magazine, Hart decided he wanted to enter, hoping to secure some local prizes for their Jefferson City wedding on Oct. 6 at St. Peter's Catholic Church. Making it through the two-week submission process and securing the most votes during the two-week voting process, the couple was thrilled to receive their gifts.
"We are going to use our gift certificate at Hy-Vee toward dessert, cake and stuff like that," Ellis said, noting her bridesmaids and the mothers will get their hair done at Salon Va'Lise. "I already have my gown, but maybe I can find something like a hair piece or little accents maybe something for the honeymoon."
After an elegant, simple reception for the close to 300 guests at The Millbottom, they will take a honeymoon vacation to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
"We are pretty excited about it; it's an all-inclusive thing, so we will plan some excursions outside of the golf course," Ellis said, looking at her fiancé who was nodding in agreement.
The couple is excited for their big day and thankful their surprise proposal story earned them prizes they could use toward their nuptials. Ellis loved hearing Hart's planning for that priceless moment, and one they will never forget.
"Jeremy did a great job with the proposal story. It was cool to hear from his point of view," Ellis said, laughing as she said, "It was just a pit stop to see the Grand Canyon on our way to Sedona."
"But it was a fateful trip," Hart added, smiling at Ellis.
Read all "I Do" contest proposal stories at newstribune.com/i-do.