clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

After 4 decades apart, ‘true love’ finally triumphs for couple who met in college at Loyola

Jeanne Gustavson fell hard for Stephen Watts. But her family didn’t approve because she’s white, he’s Black. They couldn’t make it work. Now, having come through marriages, divorces, retirement and serious health problems, they’re back together once more.

Jeanne Gustavson and Steve Watts together finally at Gustavson’s home in Cedar Mill, a suburb of Portland, Oregon.
Jeanne Gustavson and Steve Watts together finally at Gustavson’s home in Cedar Mill, a suburb of Portland, Oregon.
Jaime Valdez / Sun-Times

Stephen Watts lay in bed at a south suburban nursing home. His hair was matted, his muscles withered and his still-sharp mind withdrawn behind a wall he built to block the misery of his daily existence.

To his left, an old TV blared mostly static. To his right, his roommate grunted and shrieked at all hours.

Watts, bed-ridden, thought he’d been forgotten by the outside world.

Then, one day in June, the 71-year-old retired linguist was told he had a visitor — his first in years. His mother and sister were dead, his brother estranged from him.

But Jeanne Gustavson, his love so long ago, after they met in college at Loyola University, had never forgotten him. And now she was here.

She’d thought about him every day since they said goodbye 42 years before.

She saw Watts sitting in a chair in the visiting room at the nursing home. And when he spoke, calling her by the pet name he gave her, she knew she’d been right to fly across the country to see him.

“When he called me the nickname — even though we hadn’t talked yet — I knew in my heart that he still loved me, and this was going to work out,” Gustavson says.

They met in Chicago in 1971, when Gustavson, 18, was a German major at Loyola, and Watts, tall and handsome, was president of the college’s German club.

“He was a hunk,” says Gustavson, now 68 and living in Portland, Ore.

He couldn’t take his eyes off her.

But, to her family, there was a problem. She’s white. He’s African American. She lived with her mother and grandmother, who didn’t allow Black people in the house unless they were there for work.

In their world, she says, “You didn’t see Black people unless they were a domestic for someone.”

They fell in love anyway but kept that from her family.

Steve Watts and Jeanne Gustavson in their young days in love — before four decades apart.
Steve Watts and Jeanne Gustavson in their young days in love — before four decades apart. “He was a hunk,” she says.
Provided

Gustavson says she hated keeping secret the source of so much happiness. And Watts told her, if only he could meet her mother, she’d surely like him.

So Gustavson arranged a pool party for the German Club at her mother’s house in Mundelein. She told her that the president of the club was Black, and, “well, she just went ballistic,” Gustavson says. “I didn’t even say we were dating.”

Her mother eventually figured that out, Gustavson says, at one point storming in to the dean’s office at Loyola and talking about pulling her daughter out of school because she was seeing a Black man.

In time, mother and daughter reached a fragile truce. Gustavson agreed to see Watts only on campus. But she says, “There was a part of me that never forgave her.”

“I loved him, and we wanted to get married,” she says. “We talked about it and having a family.”

They dated for seven years. Watts studied linguistics in graduate school at Loyola’s downtown campus. Gustavson graduated from nursing school in Maywood and got a job at a hospital.

Both so busy, it got to where they rarely saw each other. Their phone conversations became increasingly brief.

“One night, when he called me, everything came down on me at once, and I made a decision to end the relationship,” Gustavson says.

She told him, “ ‘I love you, Steve. I’m sorry, but I can’t do this.’ ”

He was devastated. So was she.

“From the instant I did it, when I hung up the phone at work, I regretted it,” she says. “But, at the time, I thought it was the best thing to do for both of us.”

He moved on, going to Germany to teach. She worked as a nurse for 40 years.

In time, each married someone else — and divorced.

In 1987, she moved to Oregon with her mother, who died in 2012. Three years ago, Gustavson retired.

Through everything, she says, she’d never forgotten Watts. He was her first love and her “true love.”

And she says she was tormented by guilt over how she’d ended things.

With no job now and no longer needing to care for her mother, Gustavson says she thought a lot about her life with Watts.

“I prayed he’d be married and be happy and have kids,” she says. “He always wanted a family.”

She didn’t want to interfere in his life. Still, she was curious.

Maybe he was on Facebook. But no luck with that: There were thousands of Steve Watts there. She couldn’t locate him online, so she tried plugging in the names of family members of his she remembered.

In May, she heard back from one of them — a call from Watts’s niece Adrienne Baskin, who told her she’d last seen her uncle a few years before and that he was in a nursing home near Chicago.

“Someone who is willing to take the time out to locate you and to make sure you’re OK and to help you is one in a thousand,” says Baskin, 49, who lives in Iowa.

Gustavson was thrilled.

“That was one of the happiest days of my life,” she says, “because I thought: Oh, my God, I can find him now.”

She called the nursing home.

“He’s alert and oriented,” the nurse on his floor told her. She couldn’t say more because of privacy rules.

So Gustavson wrote him a letter. She asked for his forgiveness. But she never heard back.

A few weeks later, she flew to Chicago anyway. She went to the nursing home and said she was there to see Watts.

A nurse wheeled him to the waiting area. The tall, handsome man she remembered, who’d always worn a sports jacket and tie, was in sweats now. His hair, thinner, was long and scraggly.

“I knew it was him, but it wasn’t him,” she says.

Then, in a whisper, he spoke the nickname he’d given her all of those decades before — a name no one else knew and Gustavson won’t reveal.

And he told her: “I love you.”

They spent nearly two hours together at that reunion after 42 years.

Gustavson learned Watts had been married for 12 years but had no children. He’d lived with his sister until she died suddenly. Many of his friends had died, too. About 15 years ago, he’d had a stroke, then another. Infections led to his left leg being amputated just above the knee.

He was quieter. But Gustavson says, “He was still the wonderful man that I knew 50 years ago. He had withdrawn. There were little glimmers of his personality.”

At one point, he pulled her close and sang the line, “I love you a bushel and peck,” from the musical “Guys and Dolls.” She’d never heard him sing before.

“I was just flabbergasted,” Gustavson says.

Jeanne Gustavson watches as her partner Steve Watts play chess with caregiver Sandra Collins at Gustavson’s home in Cedar Mill, Oregon, a suburb of Portland.
Jeanne Gustavson watches as her partner Steve Watts play chess with caregiver Sandra Collins at Gustavson’s home in Cedar Mill, Oregon, a suburb of Portland.
Jaime Valdez / Sun-Times

She stayed in town for a week. The nursing home staff eventually allowed her to visit with Watts in the room he shared with others.

“His roommates were unbearable,” she says. “I was in the room for two hours, and I couldn’t stand it because of the noise.”

After about a week, she told him: Come back with me to live in Portland.

“I’ll follow you anywhere,” he answered.

Gustavson went back to Portland and returned a week later. She gathered the paperwork they’d need, including documents allowing her to become Watts’ legal caregiver.

Her brother Tony Mathis helped arrange a medical transport van to drive them to Portland. The trip, which cost about $14,000, took 36 hours. Watts didn’t like it.

“I slept with one eye open because he was terrified,” Gustavson says.

In the predominantly white Portland neighborhood where she’s lived for three decades, her neighbors had strung “welcome home” banners to greet them and later brought over hot meals. The fire department sent firefighters to carry Watts up the stairs in Gustavson’s home.

It wasn’t an easy transition for him.

“The first couple of weeks were really rough,” Gustavson says.

Jeanne Gustavson hugs Steve Watts to comfort him after getting emotional talking about their lives apart for 42 years.
Jeanne Gustavson hugs Steve Watts to comfort him after getting emotional talking about their lives apart for 42 years.
Jaime Valdez / Sun-Times

But he adapted. And so, it turned out, did she.

“She’s gone from that sedate person we’ve always known to — she bubbles, she giggles all the time,” says Tina Mattern, a neighbor and close friend. “They are making up for lost time.”

Mathis didn’t know about his sister’s relationship with Watts until she told him after her first trip back to Chicago in June. He gets why she’s so happy. And he’s thrilled.

“She’s been essentially someone shortchanged her entire life,” Mathis says. “For her to experience this reunion is really phenomenal. He clearly is not the man he was 42 years ago. Inside, he is the same human being. And she loves him for who he is on the inside, not for the man he’s become on the outside.”

And now, all of these decades since Gustavson decided to break up with him, what does Watts think?

“I forgive her,” he says. “I love her.”

“It’s everything both of us wanted,” Gustavson says.

Even after decades apart, Jeanne Gustavson and Steve Watt say they knew from the moment of their reunion that they still love each other.
Even after decades apart, Jeanne Gustavson and Steve Watt say they knew from the moment of their reunion that they still love each other.
Jaime Valdez / Sun-Times

Chicago

Man dies after falling from Blue Line train platform in Logan Square

Crime

7 people shot in Chicago Tuesday

Crime

Man shot to death by masked gunman in Woodlawn

View all stories in News