Separated Over Race, College Sweethearts Finally Get Together 42 Years Later

When racial intolerance forced Jeannie Gustavson to end her eight-year relationship with Steve Watts, she didn’t imagine she would get a second chance. However, 42 years later, they found themselves in each other’s lives.

In 1971, Jeannie Gustavson, a freshman, crossed paths with a Loyola University Chicago senior, Steve Watts. The pair met at a gathering for the German Club and instantly felt a strong connection. From the time Watts laid eyes on Gustavson, he knew she was the one. He shared:

“It became very apparent very quickly that we had feelings for each other. We were falling in love […]. It was our first true love, each one of us.”

As lovers, they wanted to spend every moment together and saw a future with each other. Unfortunately, racism was a prevalent issue, and Gustavson’s mother could not accept that her daughter was even friends with a man of color.

Despite the odds, Gustavson could not bear to watch Watts walk away, so they continued seeing each other in secret. At that time, no one except her brother knew of their relationship. But after eight years, Gustavson realized that their love for each other was no longer enough. She shared:

“I just broke down. I didn’t see how we were going to be able to spend time together to foster a relationship.”

As a result, Gustavson broke the heart of the man she thought she would grow old and gray with. Admittedly, she was just as broken and carried the guilt and regret for the next 42 years of her life.

Eventually, Gustavson and Watts moved on, and both married and divorced. Years had passed, and with no knowledge of each other’s lives, the former lovers thought about each other every day.

In August 2020, Gustavson finally mustered the courage to find Watts. She looked for him on the internet until reaching his niece, who had not seen him in years. It turned out, Watts was in a nursing home outside of Chicago.

Immediately, she penned a letter and sent it to the nursing home. When he did not reply, Gustavson called, only to find out Watts could not take her call.

Determined to reunite with her first love, Gustavson flew to Chicago and went straight to the nursing home. She learned that Watts had been in the home since 2004 and suffered two strokes that crippled him.

When Watts was brought downstairs in a reclining chair, he looked into Gustavson’s eyes and called out her name. “In that instant, I knew he still loved me, and I still loved him, and this was going to be forever,” she said.

Watts grabbed her hand, and the pair cried for over an hour. Although things had since changed, Gustavson and Watts knew that their love remained.

After six days, Gustavson flew back to Portland but promised she would return. With the help of her younger brother, Tony Mathis, they were able to bring Watts to Portland to finally live their happily-ever-after.

Since moving in together, Watts has significantly improved. “She saved my life,” he said. “If this is not heaven, it’s pretty close to it.”

A similar story happened to Dennis Vinar and Karen Lehmann, who fell in love and had a child in their teenage years. However, their parents did not want their relationship to continue. Fifty years later, the former lovers found themselves in each other’s arms.


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