The Washington State Fair in Puyallup evokes a variety of emotions and memories for fairgoers.
For Michele Lilley, the fairgrounds is a place for romance.
The Milton resident recently celebrated the anniversary of her engagement to husband Dan, who proposed to her 20 years ago.
It happened as the couple stepped off the fair’s gondola. With the help of a paper-heart marker on the side of the ride’s car, an enthusiastic crowd of friends, family and even strangers held a 35-foot-long banner that said, “Michele will you marry me?”
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“I had the technician throw it on the car so they knew what car we were in,” Dan Lilley said of the neon heart.
The rest is history.
Fast forward two decades, and Michele Lilley happily describes the Washington State Fair as a romantic part of the couple’s story.
“I still have the sign and a photo of that day,” she said in an email to fair spokeswoman Karen LaFlamme, who forwarded it to The News Tribune.
LaFlamme said she had to share Lilley’s story.
“The fair has been a tradition in many families for generations, and there are few venues left that can claim that honor,” she said in an email Friday. “Michele and her husband represent why the Washington State Fair is such an important part of their lives and their memories.”
Dan Lilley’s girlfriend of five years took some persuading to go to the fair that night in 1994.
“I was resistant because it was a work night,” Michele Lilley said.
After she agreed, she was annoyed to discover he wouldn’t let her stand in any lines, buy any food or ride any rides.
Little did she know, the night was being carefully timed. She was elated when she realized why.
“It shocked the heck out of her,” said Dan Lilley, a lifelong fairgoer who grew up in Puyallup. “It was really cool.”
He acknowledged that others have likely proposed at the fairgrounds in similar ways, but he said it was still special.
The plan was all his own and went as scripted — except for his pocket tape recorder missing the moment.
“He tried recording our moment in our little cloud up there,” Michele Lilley said, laughing. “I hugged him so tight I turned the recorder off.”
The Lilley family attends the fair every year. The couple still gets nostalgic every time they visit the fairgrounds. Their sons, 13-year-old Carson and 14-year-old Cade, find it a little silly.
Dan and Michele Lilley aren’t the only ones who fondly remember their happy day 20 years ago.
Several years ago on another gondola ride, the couple stumbled across the same ride operator who helped put the paper heart on the door that sparked the surprise proposal.
“We were so flattered that he remembered our story and impressed that he was still there after all these years,” Lilley wrote in her email to the fair.
This year, Dan and Michele Lilley marked the 20th anniversary of their engagement by attending the Florida Georgia Line concert.
“We had a good time,” Michele Lilley said. “Florida Georgia Line puts on a rowdy show.”
The fair has seen its share of happy couples taking the leap.
LaFlamme said weddings at the fairgrounds range from promotional roller-coaster events to smaller, quiet ceremonies.
Michele Lilley said she never really thought about adding roller-coaster nuptials to the list of fair memories, but she isn’t counting out a renewal of vows.
“We’re silly enough where we’d totally do something like that,” she said.
LaFlamme said the fair could make it happen.
“We’re always honored when the fair becomes a part of a chapter of their lives,” she said.
Regardless, Michele Lilley said it is certain her family will experience many more precious moments at the fair.
“It’s just an evolution of memories,” she said, tearing up. “We’re going to bring our grandkids there.”