Published by The Prince George’s Sentinel
With an out-of-tune rendition of “We Are Family,” tykes running on the dance floor, 20-somethings frequenting the open bar, country club toothpick appetizers and a too-strong bouquet toss, it looked like an average wedding.
But the ceremony was – like the couple’s first dance to the 1951 Nat King Cole classic – “Unforgettable.”
Patrick Nolan glanced up while reciting the Genesis verse “go forth and multiply” at the church podium – and the crowd busted out laughing.
Theresa A. Nolan, an 82-year-old former Prince George’s County circuit court judge with 11 children, 29 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, married 76-year-old retired stock broker Tom Dugan on July 1 at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Bethany Beach, Del.
Walking down the aisle with a bride dressed in blue elegance, the Irishman wearing a green bow tie stopped to crack a joke about waving to the family-filled rows of pews. “I used to be somebody before I married into this family” the groom joked later at the reception.
“They’re like royalty,” Mike Dugan said of the family-oriented couple that first met in Prince George’s County around the early 1980s.
Mike Dugan’s toast to the married couple was a story about the time he was charged with a driving infraction and The Hon. Theresa A. Nolan presided over his court case.
“I brought my toothbrush just in case, but Theresa was good, and she didn’t throw the book at me, and I ended up going home that night,” he said. “Dad called her later and he was like ‘I wanted to thank you for that’ and she goes ‘Well, he reminded me of one of my sons.’”
The couple re-met on Saint Patrick’s Day in Ocean City and dated for a few years, until Tom Dugan said he wanted to live with her.
“She’s hardcore Catholic,” said Chrissy Nolan, 55, who has recently finished writing her mom’s life story. “She was not having it.”
They broke up. And about a year later, Chrissy Nolan got a call from her mother asking about what she should wear to a funeral.
“Who cares mom? Your life is funerals. You’re 82. All you do is go to funerals and the doctor. What do you mean what are you going to wear?” Chrissy Nolan said. “I think Tom is going to be there,” the writer recalled her mother saying.
When their eyes met at the funeral, it was like “high school teen club,” Chrissy Nolan said.
Father Joseph P. Kennedy described the two as “20-year-olds” who were “ga-ga over each other” during the ceremony.
Family members described the couple’s relationship as “giddy,” “true love” and “young at heart.”
“They have a young spirit, a lot of fire,” Mike Dugan said. “Dad always said she was the one for him.”
“They click well,” said Patrick Nolan, the former judge’s eldest child. “I see a glow on Tom Dugan that I’ve never seen.”
Erin McCarthy, Nolan’s 29-year-old grandchild, also saw a glow in her grandmother.
“They’re so madly in love with each other. And age doesn’t matter,” McCarthy said. “She is so incredibly in love with Tom Dugan and, I thought, if I were in that position, I would totally want to do it too.”
Chrissy Nolan called the 82-year-old bride a “trailblazer for women’s liberation.”
Theresa A. Nolan, a District native, was elected the first woman president of the Prince George’s County Bar Association, received the Rita C. Davidson Award from the Maryland Women’s Bar Association and was named one of “Maryland’s Top 100 Women” by the Daily Record.
Her career started as a stenographer at a law firm after being a stay-at-home mother for 10 years. The law firm sent her to the University of Baltimore where she enrolled at the age of 37 when her youngest child was only 2 years old.
Theresa A. Nolan earned her law degree in 1975 and was admitted to the Maryland Bar a year later. She practiced law for four years before being appointed Master for Domestic Relations Causes, then District Court judge and ultimately Circuit Court judge. She also worked as an instructor at Prince George’s Community College and the University of Maryland.
The former judge even donates to Walking With Anthony, a non-profit organization inspired by her grandson Anthony Purcell who became paralyzed after a driving accident, the organization’s founder, Theresa A. Nolan’s daughter Micki Purcell said. The funds are dedicated to raising awareness and helping spinal cord injury victims.
“She did it all,” Chrissy Nolan said. “She’s just amazing.”
She has been “an inspiration” for McCarthy who decided to apply to Georgetown University’s graduate school after watching a slideshow of her grandmother’s life at the trailblazer’s 80th birthday party.
Her grandmother’s advice to take life “day by day” helped her juggle work, coaching and school.
“It’s really what got me through grad school,” said McCarthy, who earned her degree in sports industry management in May.
Theresa Nolan Breslin, 26, also drew strength from her grandmother in her first year at law school.
“I would say to myself all the time,” she continued, “If grandma could do it with my dad (the 10th child) and 10 other kids just like him, I can do this.”
Nolan’s daughter, Joanne Kowalczyk said she has also used a variation of the mantra as a mother of three daughters.
“If they complain, I say ‘look grandma had 11 kids and went to law school. I don’t want to hear it.’”
Breslin, the 26-year-old lawyer and 2012 University of Miami graduate, contacts the former judge for career advice “all the time.” Her wealth of wisdom and knowledge has been “instrumental,” Breslin said.
She still remembers doing an eighth grade project on her grandmother’s life story and learning about how she considered entering a convent.
“She’s just a great role model in our faith and in our careers,” Breslin said.
The namesake had asked her grandmother why she was choosing to get married at 82. And her grandmother responded by saying “I want to set a good example for all (your) cousins,” according to Breslin.
McCarthy said her grandmother has a “special relationship” with all her cousins.
“It still boggles my mind how she will not miss like a First Communion, she will not miss a Confirmation, she will not miss a graduation – like even kindergarten graduations.”
Chrissy Nolan is most impressed by this “devotion to family.”
“Every one of her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, she has a personal relationship with everybody it’s just phenomenal,” she said of her mother. “She has kept the family together.”
The Nolan family is proud of its closeness, despite living in different states throughout the county.
“In this family, we’re so tight-knit, if anybody brings in a boyfriend or a girlfriend, they go through like a hazing process,” Breslin said. Her husband William Breslin went through it. “So it was the same thing for him (Tom Dugan). We were like ‘who is this guy?’”
Breslin said Tom Dugan “fit right in” after the family got to know him.
“Tom is that missing piece of the puzzle, totally brings everything back together,” McCarthy said.
Still, McCarthy’s initial reaction to the engagement was one of puzzlement.
“When I heard she was engaged, I was like ‘What? Are you serious? Grandma? Grandma Nolan?” But after thinking about it, McCarthy was not surprised, “knowing her life and the way she lives it and just lives every (day) to the fullest.”
Theresa A. Nolan has had her hip and knee replaced. She suffers from macular degeneration, a medical condition that destroys the part of the eye that provides sharp, central vision needed for seeing object clearly, according to the National Eye Institute.
But it was unnoticeable when the 82-year-old walked down the aisle. And it went unnoticed as she danced with her great-grandchildren.
“She’s just never thrown the towel in. It’s like she just keeps going and going and going (and) she will have enthusiasm for life until her last day,” Chrissy Nolan said. “They’re just going to enjoy it to the end.”