WEST LONG BRANCH — For as long as she could remember, Casey Kapalko loved watching her dad Paul work as a judge in the courtroom.

It was touching to see him on adoption day, when he would bring new families together. But it was watching him officiate weddings that she loved the most.

"My sister and I would always get excited when he'd have a really nice turn of phrase. We'd roll our eyes when he told a dad joke. It was always fun because it was one of his favorite things about his job," she said.

From the time she was a little girl she said she knew that when she got married she wanted her dad to be the one officiating the ceremony. That dream was put in jeopardy in 2011 when Judge Kapalko was diagnosed with pancreatic carcinoids. Doctors said he might only live four or five more years.

Kapalko defied the odds. Earlier this year, as he lay in his bed in the Intensive Care Unit at Monmouth Medical Center, he was there to marry his daughter and her partner, Stephanie. The couple had planned to get married in May, but Casey said their plans always had one constant: who the officiant would be.

"When Stephanie and I got engaged, we couldn't think of anybody else that we would have wanted to do it more, and that was not even considering the fact that he was sick and he might not be around forever," she said. "It was really special to think that I would have that moment with him even if he weren't here anymore."

Judge Kapalko with daughter Casey, right, and her spouse, Stephanie. (Courtesy of Casey Kapalko)
Judge Kapalko with daughter Casey, right, and her spouse, Stephanie. (Courtesy of Casey Kapalko)

Originally, the plan was to have the wedding in May, but when she went with her dad to a doctor's appointment a few months before the big day and talked to his doctor, Casey said she knew there was a chance he might not make it that far.

Not only was Judge Kapalko trying to make it to his daughter's wedding, she said she later learned that he'd enlisted the help of a physical therapist to help him stand and walk with his daughter at her wedding.

Unfortunately, those plans were derailed when Judge Kapalko was admitted to the hospital the week before Easter and was moved to the ICU. Knowing his health might not hold up, Casey said she and Stephanie applied for their marriage license early in case they needed to move up the wedding day.

There were further complications as the municipal offices were closed for the holiday weekend, and even if he were able to perform the wedding, the rules of the ICU limited patients to two guests at a time. Thankfully, with a few phone calls to township officials and a helping hand by the hospital, they were able to make the arrangements.

"I remember sort of looking at Stephanie like, 'Do you want to get married today? Do you want to go for it?" And she said, 'Yeah, let's do it'," she said.

Judge Kapalko and his two daughters. Courtesy of Casey Kapalko)
Judge Kapalko and his two daughters. Courtesy of Casey Kapalko)

That was the Saturday before Easter. But her dad begged them to wait until Monday, so that he could have a cumbersome tube removed. In the end though, the wishes of the bride prevailed and the wedding was held on Saturday.

"When we got there, it was like watching dad perform any other wedding," she said. "He went off script, he sort of waxed poetic at times, which was not unusual. He offered some sound advice, and you wouldn't have thought based on the way that he spoke that we were in the middle of an ICU, that there were beeps and buzzers, and that everyone was wearing a mask. It was really nice."

It may not have been the ceremony she'd always dreamed of, but Casey said it was still a very special day.

"I remember thinking, 'I don't know if this is real.' It came together so fast and we're all just sort of standing there," she said. "Then he started talking and I was like, 'That's my dad!"

As it turned out, Casey said it was another chance for the dad to prove to the daughter who was right when they saw him the Monday after the big day.

"[H]e was sitting up in his chair, he was playing pinochle with his friends, he was like, 'I told you Monday would have been a better day!"

Judge Kapalko passed away 12 days after seeing his daughter get married, and Casey said knowing he was there, even under unusual circumstances, made it a day she'll never forget.

"You don't get married on a whim, but knowing that he was a part of that I think sort of added some weight to the moment for us and we sort of appreciate our wedding and what we have for each other and what we were able to share with everyone there just a little bit more," she said.

It's been a few months since the wedding. On Saturday, Casey's sister Christina will head to Yankee Stadium, a place that was special to their die hard Yankee-fan dad, to pay tribute to him. Christina is taking part in the Damon Runyon 5K, a fundraiser for cancer research. While Casey is not a baseball fan at all, she said the Yankees were something that brought her dad and sister together.

Judge Kapalko and his two daughters. Courtesy of Casey Kapalko)
Judge Kapalko and his two daughters. Courtesy of Casey Kapalko)

"The two of them would sit on the couch and watch the Yankees for hours," she said. "They would go to Yankees games and he was actually planning on surprising Christina with Yankees tickets this summer."

Christina has run a few 5K's but Casey still remembers when she ran her first one in Long Branch with their dad there to cheer her on.

"He made such a fuss over everything. He was so proud of her," she said. "I think the fact that it's in Yankee Stadium and she gets to do it in that place and on top of that gets to sort of relive something that was important for her with dad the first time, I think is really great."

Their dad may be gone but Casey said the lessons he passed on, including the dad jokes he told, will live on forever.

"For Stephanie and I, it's just a matter of being appreciative of what we have and the memory that he sort of gifted us, and being the people that dad raised us to be."

Casey said Christina is going to law school to follow in her dad's professional footsteps while she will take a broader approach to honoring him.

"I'm just going to [...] do everything with the same amount of passion and dedication that my dad did and sort of carry him on that way," she said.

To learn more about the Damon Runyon 5K and help Christina raise money for the event check out her website.

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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com

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