After Mark Dayton and Ana Orke reconnected two years ago — and made peace with their 41-year age difference — a romance blossomed: "The love just grew to mean more than the years that separate us"

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Ana Orke and Mark Dayton
From left: former Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Ana Dayton at their wedding on Saturday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis
| Credit: Liz Banfield

This is a love story. So of course it begins in the winter in a restaurant in Minneapolis some two years ago.

“It was just one those moments,” Ana Dayton, née Orke, says now of first running into former Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, her old boss.

It had been years since Ana, then 30, had worked for Mark, then 71. But there they were again, face to face.

“It was kind of like no time had passed, but so much had changed,” Ana recalls. “So we right away set up a time to get together and catch up. I don't think either of us knew what it would lead to, but as Mark said: The rest is happy history.”

This is a very specific love story, so there are also twists: Ana, now 32, is 41 years younger than her new husband, 73, whom she has known for much of her life. She met Mark at a fundraiser in high school and interned in his Senate office after graduating. She worked for his first gubernatorial campaign, in 2010, before her career path led her elsewhere until that literal run-in again “almost exactly two years ago,” she says.

Neither knew then that they were on their way to romance. “It happened slowly,” according to Ana. They met for dinner, then met again. A year ago, things turned romantic.

“The feelings of the person I got to know professionally, I got to know personally now as an adult and just fell in love with who he is,” Ana says of Mark. “His values that he expressed as governor are the same things that are important to me personally.”

“And that age difference, I will say, definitely gave me pause,” she says. “But the love just grew to mean more than the years that separate us. So it just didn't matter after a while.”

“Obviously, I think people are always going to mischaracterize our relationship based on clichés,” she says. “But that just isn't something that worries us.”

On Sunday, Mark announced that the two were married. Ana, he wrote on Facebook, “is smart, compassionate, tough, funny, and impossibly good at Scrabble!”

“Well-wishers, with whom I share my news, often ask me, ‘Who is the lucky lady?’ ” he wrote. “But that is the wrong question, for it is I who am the lucky man.”

“I know our age difference … will surprise many of you,” Mark wrote. “The truth is, the feelings that developed between Ana and me, given our age difference, surprised us too, at first.”

Ana Orke and Mark Dayton Wedding - CREDIT: Liz Banfield
From left: Ana and Mark Dayton at their Saturday wedding in Minneapolis
| Credit: Liz Banfield

Mark, who left the governor’s office in 2019, had long been a bachelor after two previous marriages. (He has two adult sons.) The nuptials were a surprise, but only to the public: He and Ana were engaged in the summer — Mark says he made up his mind “sometime in the spring” and then proposed in June, in his apartment.

“It was after we'd had just a really fun day together out in Minneapolis,” Ana says. “And we were making dinner and I turned around and he was down on one knee.”

“It was really, really sweet. It was very true to character for Mark,” she says. “I think that he's a passionate person, personally and professionally, and when he wants to do something or feels moved to do something, he goes through with it, he carries it through. It's part of the reason I love him.”

Mark adds: “Proposing in our kitchen was spontaneous, though not very romantic!”

“We traveled to Sedona [in Arizona] a couple months later, where I made it official by giving her a ring,” he tells PEOPLE.

They wed on Saturday, a pandemic-era adaptation once they realized they would have to postpone the larger gathering until later next year.

”It was important to us,” Ana says. “It was the date we chose to marry, and we felt like it would be meaningful to still go through the legal portion so that we were married as we planned, instead of dealing with the disappointment of waiting for everything.”

The Saturday ceremony included certain concessions — Ana is saving her Savannah Miller-designed white dress for next year, opting instead for a jacquard black-and-blue shirtdress by Saint Laurent — but not others: Minister Timothy Hart-Andersen officiated at Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis, just as he will for the second ceremony. (Mark’s assistant and Ana’s father were the witnesses.)

Ana and Mark were married near sunset, just as they plan to next year. And in lieu of a candlelit reception dinner from their favorite restaurant, Spoon and Stable, they ordered from there on Saturday night for a dinner at home.

Mark shared the news publicly on Sunday and on Monday night, the newlyweds arrived in Hawaii for the start of their week-long honeymoon in Maui.

Ana Orke and Mark Dayton Wedding - CREDIT: Liz Banfield
From left: Ana and Mark Dayton at their Saturday wedding in Minneapolis
| Credit: Liz Banfield

As the headlines spread, Ana says the reductive thing would be to focus on what is unusual about their relationship rather than what isn’t.

“Really it should just be that we found love, rather than Mark Dayton marries someone 41 years his junior, [it should be] that Mark Dayton got married. That's what you would hope,” she says.

“Our age difference is something we have to acknowledge,” she says. But, she says, “We have shared values, shared interests, and love is love, as Mark has always said.” As for their low profile as a couple, Mark says: “Because of the pandemic, most social activities have been canceled, so there’s been nowhere to show her off! I’m very proud to be seen with her.”

(Earlier this year, Mark also recovered from a fall that required surgery after hitting his head; he needed “intensive physical therapy,” he has said.)

Ana, who is working at a friend’s nonprofit providing market research, says her true passion is in politics and she still speaks fondly of her internship in D.C., years ago. She and Mark have also discussed having children.

Right now, though, they have a honeymoon to finish.

As Ana spoke with PEOPLE earlier this week, she noted in passing, “I can see the ocean in the background. It's pretty amazing.”

Soon enough they’ll be back home together in Minnesota. Says Ana: “At the end of the day, we're just two people who love each other.”