‘Finding Love In A Pandemic’

‘Finding Love In A Pandemic’

FRIENDS of the wedding couple pose for a socially distanced photo after the wedding of Bermet Zhumakadyr kyzy and Max Gelber on the Washington and Lee University campus. They are (from left) Mark Rush, Rich Bidlack, Nancy Bidlack, Jack Page, Margie Page, Hunter Swanson, Dmitry Zhukovskiy, Iuliia Rubina, and Bermet Zhumakadyr kyzy and Max Gelber. (Claudia Schwab photo)

‘Finding Love In A Pandemic’

MARRIAGE commissioner David Natkin looks on with a big smile just after he pronounced Bermet Zhumakadyr kyzy and Max Gelber man and wife. (Claudia Schwab photo)

‘Finding Love In A Pandemic’

MAYFLOWER resident Kathie Chervenok was delightfully surprised when Bermet Zhumakadyr kyzy and Max Gelber (back right) came by to visit after their wedding at W&L. Chervenok had become acquainted with the couple after Max stopped to help her one day and they had waved at each other several times since then while she was sitting on the porch. (photo courtesy of The Mayflower)

‘Finding Love In A Pandemic’

KEEPING HIS DISTANCE, groom Max Gelber (at right) hands a cup to Mark Rush. Dmitry Zhukovskiy stands ready to fill the cup from a bottle of champagne. (Claudia Schwab photo)

Ties To W&L Brings Couple Back For Wedding

‘Unusual” is the key word describing Thursday, May 28.

A most unusual wedding took place just prior to the first-ever virtual graduation ceremony at Washington and Lee University.

Bermet  Zhumakadyr kyzy of Kyrgyzstan, dressed in a sweeping bridal gown, was first escorted by W&L history professor Rich Bidlack and his wife Nancy across campus from Newcomb Hall through the colonnade to du-Pont Hall where they were met by her husband-to-be Max Gelber and Lexington attorney and marriage commissioner David Natkin.

It was just supposed to be the four of them and Natkin at the wedding but Bermet had invited a few colleagues and friends. Jack and Margie Page of Lexington, friends of the bride, were among the small group. Margie blew bubbles, while Jack and others took photos.

After Bermet presented her passport and Max, his driver’s license, for Natkin to verify they were who they said they were, the marriage vows ceremony took only a few short minutes.

Music would have been impossible to hear over the loud background sounds coming from the huge ventilator atop the nearby science center. But those assembled stood there with big smiles on their faces listening to the few words spoken and watching the expressions, gestures and finally — the embrace of the newly married couple.

Afterwards, Bermet and Max wanted their photo taken in front of the Ruscio Center for Global Learning, the new attachment to duPont Hall which serves to house the Center for International Education, which was so important in the life of Bermet.

“Bermet had first come to W&L for the academic year of 2010-11 with a John M. Gunn Scholarship, named for emeritus professor John Gunn, which provides full funding for one international student per year,” explained Rich Bidlack, who together with his wife Nancy and their two sons, were Bermet’s host family. Through the years, the Bidlacks and Bermet have retained their close connection.

“Afterwards, she returned home to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where she completed her senior year at the American University of Central Asia, graduating as valedictorian of her class in 2012,” Bidlack said. “She met Max there when he studied at AUCA for a semester, later returning to her country for a year as a postgraduate Fulbright fellow teaching English.”

Max explained that he was a University of Florida senior spending the fall semester at the American University of Central Asia when he met Bermet.

“We became close friends then, but were not romantically involved,” he said. “I was naive, scared, and didn’t make a move. The following year, I came back to Kyrgyzstan to do a post-grad English teaching program. She was in a relationship with someone else. We were still friends, though I think I always wanted more.

“We talked here and there since 2013, but never more than a text or email,” he continued. “She came in 2014 to visit the family that hosted her at W&L (the Bidlacks); we spent a few days hanging out in D.C. together then. We didn’t really talk again until November of 2019, when I had an unbelievably beautiful dream that we had two kids. I messaged her. She later told me she was coming to W&L for the spring semester to teach. I was so excited, and offered to pick her up from the airport.”

Max, who lives in Northern Virginia, did just that and drove Bermet to Lexington, where she continued her ties with the Bidlacks.

When she had visited the Bidlacks in 2014, she was working for the Human Rights Watch’s office in Bishkek as a researcher monitoring human rights abuses through the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and in that capacity, she gave a talk on her work at W&L, explained Rich Bidlack.

Last summer Bermet hosted the Bidlacks on a two-week trip to Kyrgyzstan that was somewhat of a preview of a proposed 2020 spring term course she was to have helped teach. She would have led the 14 students in the class on a 500-mile circuit visiting the wonders of Kyrgyzstan, including its “national treasure,” Lake Issyk-Kul, the world’s second largest saline lake.

That spring term trip was among the activities canceled due to the pandemic.

But, of course, no one knew any of this would happen back in January when Bermet was first driven by Max from the airport in Washington to Lexington to help out with Bidlack’s winter term course and the planning for the spring term course.

Resuming their friendship, Max and Bermet started dating in January and “the rest is history.”

Although they didn’t see each other much in the interim, Max did visit in Lexington, appropriately on Valentine’s Day, and one time in March, and they spoke to each other daily. However, with the onset of the COVID-19, they did not see each other from that brief time in March until their wedding day.

Max said that under non-COVID circumstances, they would have gotten married in Florida, close to his parents, but decided to come to Lexington for the ceremony instead. It would mean a lot to Bermet, he wrote beforehand, to be married in Lexington because she loves the school and the community.

Rich Bidlack said he remembers the first time he met Max – in an elevator at a conference in October 2019 in Washington, D.C. “When Bermet informed us she was going

“When Bermet informed us she was going to marry Max, Nancy pulled out her wedding gown from when we were married in the summer of 1978,” Rich said. “It fits Bermet as if it were custom-made for her.”

When Bermet was asked afterwards about how she thought the wedding went, she said, “I loved our wedding. It was so special to have it in the community that has given me so much. It is here that I met the Bidlacks who became a family to me and shower me with their unconditional love. It meant so much for me and my family back in Kyrgyzstan that Richard was the one to give me away while I was wearing Nancy’s wedding dress and holding flowers that Nancy’s mom Beverly picked out for me.

“Both Max and I were touched that all the guests, the celebrant, and the photographer were able to come despite the pandemic and on a very short notice, too,” she added.

After the wedding and posing for photos in some of their favorite spots, Bermet and Max headed across campus, which by then was beginning to fill with students, families and faculty coming to the unusual online graduation.

While proceeding toward their car, they walked once again through the colonnade but this time, it was crowded with everyone arriving for the unusual graduation. Then Bermet and Max sat together on a bench at the far end of campus watching for a bit before getting up to leave.

The News-Gazette learned shortly after that they had gone to The Mayflower to visit a very special person and acquaintance of theirs, Mayflower resident Kathie Chervenok.

“We had an encounter this past year at the Mayflower,” remembers Chervenok. “I am in a wheelchair and I like to go out to sit on the porch in front but I was trying to get back in the front door one day as they were going by and he (Max) stopped to help me.

“I thought that was so nice,” she said. “He asked if he could have my full name and a month later, I got a full letter from him introducing himself to me.”

In the interim, Chervenok has been continuing to come out to sit on the front porch of The Mayflower to watch people go by. Lots of times people honk and she waves, which she had evidently done on at least one other occasion while Max was still in Lexington.

“Then the other day, I was upstairs resting and a man came in to say there was a couple outside and the woman has a wedding dress on.

“I opened the door and still couldn’t figure who they were at first but thought maybe it was the young lady in the car who’d waved at me when they’d seen me again but I couldn’t see her face.

“It was the wife (Bermet) who told me she’d said after seeing each other a second time that day ‘if we pass by where Kathie is a third time, then we’re going to get married,’” she told me. “And, they were, in fact, married that Thursday when they came to see me – it was gorgeous but simple.”

Photos were taken and posted on The Mayflower Facebook page immediately and the world beyond learned about this touching connection on this most unusual day.

Finally, Rich Bidlack, whose role in this most unusual wedding was so central, expressed it this way: “I’ve never given away a bride and I’ve never been to a wedding like this one,” he said. “I’m very happy.

“It’s about finding love in the pandemic!” he concluded.