Just another wedding guest ... with a notepad and a deadline

STEFANO ESPOSITO: Sure, I’m a middle-aged soccer-mad dad, but I’m not embarrassed to say that I really do like a good love story. The marriage of Jeanne Gustavson and Stephen Watts in October was truly one of those.

SHARE Just another wedding guest ... with a notepad and a deadline
Reporter Stefano Esposito (in blue shirt and tie in the background) takes a video of the Oct. 15 wedding of Jeanne Gustavson and Stephen Watts, at their Beaverton, Ore., home.

Reporter Stefano Esposito (in blue shirt and tie in the background) takes a video of the Oct. 15 wedding of Jeanne Gustavson and Stephen Watts, at their Beaverton, Ore., home.

I often tell people that I like to make a big deal out of little stories. Jeanne Gustavson and Stephen Watts’ was one such story: two people rekindling their love 42 years after it ended.

Sure, I’m a middle-aged soccer-mad dad, but I’m not embarrassed to say that I really do like a good love story. I’m the only guy I know who owns a copy of the movie “The English Patient,” which features three love stories.

Jeanne and Steve’s was one of the best I’d heard in 20-plus years of being a reporter. Here was a guy who’d had two strokes, half a leg amputated and had been stuck for years in a south suburban nursing home. The outside world had forgotten him, he thought. Then one day, out of the blue, his true love from college shows up and wants to take him home with her to Portland, Oregon. And by the way, she’s a trained nurse.

Every reporter wants an exclusive. This was not one of those. Katherine Cook, a reporter with Portland NBC affiliate KGW8, had it first in September 2021, and very kindly shared Jeanne’s contact information with me.

The story was so damn good, I almost didn’t care that someone else had reported it. Jeanne and Steve had broken up, in part, because their secret relationship had been exposed. Jeanne’s mother had been horrified to discover that her white daughter was dating a Black man. This was the 1970s. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional. I grew up in England around the same time. One of my mom’s best friends was Black, and she was married to a white guy. Not a big deal there.

merlin_101621018.jpg

Jeanne Gustavson and Steve Watts together at their home in suburban Portland, Ore. | File photo.

The cellphone has made reporting much easier. But even with FaceTime, you can miss a sudden flush of the cheeks, welling tears or Steve’s classical CDs that Jeanne has arranged alphabetically in plastic tubs at the foot of his bed.

I got lucky with Jeanne. Hers was a story decades in the making, and so it gushed with all the raw, honest emotion that reporters love. She shared everything: from the lifelong regret at having to break it off with Steve to the anger she’d felt toward her mother, a woman Jeanne nevertheless took care of for many years. [Jeanne has since forgiven her.] She told me everything — well, almost. She wouldn’t — and still won’t — share the pet name Steve uses for her.

Jeanne and Steve’s story, which first ran in the Chicago Sun-Times in October 2021, was loved by many readers. Some of them told me it made them cry. I aim to please.

I kept in touch with Jeanne because I really admired her and because I knew the couple’s life together was just beginning. There was talk of a wedding and of a documentary film. Jeanne seemed to like me, too. When I received an invitation to the wedding, I knew I had to cover it. But I hoped Jeanne and Steve realized I’d be coming for work, not just to wish them well.

I arrived at Jeanne and Steve’s home on a sunny afternoon in mid-October. Despite what you may have heard about the downtown problems, Portland and its surroundings really are breathtaking. Lots of wooden houses on winding, hilly roads and trees ranging from oaks to redwoods.

A stranger opened the door, pressed a finger to his lips and told me to come back later, before closing the door.

A clutch of panic. Had Jeanne forgotten that I was coming to report on her wedding? Had I misunderstood the documentary filmmaker when we discussed the ground rules prior to my trip? The Chicago Sun-Times has a limited travel budget. I’d made only one other cross-country work trip, and that was 18 years before. So my editors would not have been thrilled had I told them the story would have to be killed.

My fears were unfounded … mostly. I spent the first hour or so in Jeanne and Steve’s home being shushed by the film director almost every time I opened my mouth. But I understood she had a job to do, and I did my best to make myself scarce when she started filming.

I met Steve, the gracious retired teacher who loves chess, and whose husky whisper sometimes required a translator. He was happy to have me sit and chat in his bedroom —and confided that he was having some pre-wedding jitters. Jeanne was too, but in a different way, being uncharacteristically short-tempered.

I watched Steve in his blue suit and tie being helped into the garden in a wheelchair. Jeanne, in a powder blue dress, clutched Steve’s hand. He leaned his head against her sleeve. I teared up, like all the other guests, when Steve said: “The first time I saw you, my heart whispered, ‘She’s the one.’”

Jeanne Gustavson and Steve Watts on their wedding day in suburban Portland, Ore. | File photo.

Jeanne Gustavson and Steve Watts on their wedding day in suburban Portland, Ore. | File photo.

I bolted from my seat when the best man, Jeanne’s brother Tony Mathis, dropped a page from his speech and needed someone to grab it. And I blushed when Tony mentioned my first Sun-Times story in his talk. He said I was now “part of the family.”

I could have spent the rest of the afternoon in that garden, watching the shadows lengthen and enjoying the shade of Jeanne and Steve’s enormous oak tree. Ah, I could get used to this, I thought. A glass of champagne would have been nice.

But then I remembered I had a story to write, a deadline to meet.

Reporter Stefano Esposito

Reporter Stefano Esposito

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The Latest
The girl allegedly attacked three people on the Red Line on May 10. She was charged with robbery and aggravated battery. Other girls who were involved are still at large.
Dansby Swanson and Luis Vazquez also returned from injury for the Cubs.
ComEd says the outages are mainly in Cook, Winnebago and Stephenson counties. The National Weather Service has issued a tornado watch for nine counties in northern and northeast Illinois until midnight.
They were standing on the driveway of a home about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the 200 block of South Leamington Avenue when a Nissan drove by and someone from inside opened fire.