Normally, a surprise guest at a wedding would be an imposition. But for Dave Patinella, 44, of Long Beach, California, it was nothing short of magical.
The surprise guest was Patinella's late father, who appeared in a long-lost video tracked down by his sister, Gina Rae Witt, 43, of Madison, Wisconsin. It was the first time Patinella had "seen" or heard his father in over 20 years.
Like most siblings, Witt and Patinella — who were born just 15 months apart — had a loving relationship growing up, save for some occasional bickering. But the two became unspeakably close after losing their father, Guisto Patinella, to cancer in 1994.
"Sort of prophetically, Dad sometimes would say, if we would have a fight, 'Someday, you two might be all each other has,” Witt recalled. "I was 20 when we lost him, and then we had each other.'" (Their mother was then not a part of their lives.)
Witt continued, "We lived together, became homeowners when we were still in college, had to depend on each other and figure all that out ... on top of that, we were trying to mourn our father at the same time. (My brother) is the one person that shares those memories of our childhood and my dad."
An Allstate commercial their father had filmed in 1971 had long been a subject of family lore. "Dad filmed it about three years before I was born, the year he met my mom ... the story was, she had sat through all these hockey games on Sundays trying to see the commercial," said Witt.
The rest of the family never manage to catch it, though. "We had a photo of himself on a TV set ... he saved the letter that came with his royalty check and put it in a scrapbook," said Witt. "After he died, we'd talk about it a couple of times a year: 'We should track that down.' But then we're busy and it never happens."
That is, until Witt had the idea to make the commercial a surprise wedding gift for her brother. Patinella had walked her down the aisle and led the first dance at her wedding; she saw this as a way to offer him the same comfort on an emotional, family-centric occasion.
It took about six weeks after Witt reached out to Allstate to track down the video. Since it predated digital recording, an Allstate representative had to sift through all the film reels from 1971. "It was really kind of an inspired action," said Witt.
At last, they found it.
The Allstate team filmed Witt's reaction to the video ("I didn't remember his New York accent being that strong!"), and then sent a camera crew to Patinella's rehearsal dinner for the big reveal.
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Patinella was staggered. "He looked at me and kept saying, 'Is this real?'" recalled Witt. "We’re Italian, so we keep those emotions pretty close to the surface ... He was just blown away."
"There’s nothing that compares to being able to hear somebody and watch them move," she continued. "I know it’s just a ghost, but it's a really good ghost. It’s more than we had before."