The closing hour at Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol is hardly the time or place anyone expects to be serenaded.
But that's exactly what a couple of native Nebraskans experienced over the holidays.
Tom and Gwen Phalen received the surprise from their daughter Susan Phalen.
A 1992 UNL grad, Susan is communications director for the House Intelligence Committee. She had invited her parents to come to the Capitol at the end of the day Dec. 22 but didn't tell them why.
Tom, a retired Air Force colonel, quipped that the high secrecy was typical of Susan.
"With some of the things she does in the intelligence world," he said, "she's always clandestine."
Susan had arranged through the Speaker's Office and other officials for 20 minutes of private time at National Statuary Hall, which attracts thousands of visitors daily.
It once was the venue for the House of Representatives and still is used to welcome foreign dignitaries or for presidential luncheons. The domed chamber includes marble or bronze statues of historic figures, including William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska.
But this event would honor not American history but a personal history — the long marriage of Tom and Gwen.
"I told them to clear their schedule for a once-in-a-life-time event," Susan said. "I just said it was a Christmas present
that had nothing to do with politics and was a project I had been working on for a long time."
Tom Phalen grew up near 93rd and Pacific Streets in Omaha and graduated from Westside High, where he wrestled and played on the football team. Gwen Poyser grew up in Orleans, Nebraska, before moving to Lincoln and graduating from Lincoln High.
They met in 1965 at a mixer at the Nebraska Union, during their first week as freshmen. Tom had spied Gwen from across the way. To paraphrase the Beatles, his heart went boom when he crossed that room and asked her to dance.
Forty-nine years later, they would dance again — as Susan played a violin.
Her serenade was a long time coming. A couple of years before her parents' 30-year wedding anniversary in 1997, she bought a violin, intending to take lessons again and play for them.
Her work schedule intervened, though, and lessons were put on hold. Among her jobs was one at the State Department that had her flying back and forth to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
In the last year or so, Gwen was diagnosed with early Alzheimer's disease and cancer, though the latter is now in remission. With her dad now spending 24/7 as her mother's caregiver, Susan took her unused string instrument out of storage in April and found a teacher.
On the Monday before Christmas, her parents, who live in Fredericksburg, Virginia, arrived at the Capitol with their other daughter and her husband, Kathy and Steve Mosier.
Susan played two hymns, "It Is Well With My Soul" and "How Great Thou Art."
And she performed two pieces with special meaning to her parents. "All I Ask of You" (from "Phantom of the Opera") includes the lyrics: No more talk of darkness, forget these wide-eyed fears. I'm here, nothing can harm you — my words will warm and calm you.
The other was Anne Murray's "Could I Have This Dance?": Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?/Would you be my partner then every night?/When we're together, it feels so right.
Halfway through that song, Tom took Gwen's hand. He helped her out of the wheelchair and into his arms, for an unanticipated but very special dance.
Tom said later he easily could picture their first dance as college freshmen on Sept. 10, 1965, a date they have celebrated ever since.
Dancing with Gwen, Tom said, was a thrill in Statuary Hall, just as it was the first time in the Nebraska Union.
For their "clandestine" daughter, soon leaving the Intelligence Committee staff, her secret dream of playing special songs for her parents had come true.
Said Susan: "It was an amazing memory that I know we will all always cherish."
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