When Jeanne Gustavson spontaneously booked a trip to Chicago last summer, she had no idea what to expect. She was going to visit her first love — whom she had not seen in 42 years.
The last time Gustavson, now 68, spoke to Steve Watts was in the spring of 1979. They were young and in love, but there was one persistent issue: Watts was Black, and Gustavson’s family forbade her to see him.
“They had this mentality that Blacks and whites don’t belong together,” said Gustavson, who was raised in the northern suburbs of Chicago, and now lives in Portland, Oregon. “In my heart, I knew it wasn’t right.”
So, she flouted her family’s strict rule and dated Watts in secret.
Although she did not like disobeying her parents, “I couldn’t let him go,” Gustavson said.
The couple met in 1971, when Gustavson was a freshman and Watts was a senior at Loyola University Chicago. Both German majors, they met at a gathering of the German Club.
“From the first moment I saw her, I fell head over heels,” Watts, now 71, recalled.
Their connection was instant. They would intentionally linger after meetings, just to chat. Then, they started showing up early to casually spend additional time together. Before long, they were flirting and scheduling plans outside of school.
“It became very apparent very quickly that we had feelings for each other,” Gustavson said. “We were falling in love.”
It was a feeling neither of them was familiar with at the time: butterflies, daydreaming about the other and an unshakable yearning to spend time together.
“It was our first true love, each one of us,” Gustavson said.
But when her family found out about her budding romance with Watts, things quickly became complicated. Tensions mounted when she asked her mother if she could host a pool party at their home for the German Club members.
“I said one of the people is Black, and she just went ballistic,” said Gustavson, whose parents were divorced. “My extended family got involved, and everyone was discouraging me.”
She still saw him, but she did not tell her family.
Gustavson stayed with Watts for several more years, until she could no longer bear the pressure of keeping their relationship under wraps. It had also become increasingly difficult to spend time together, as Gustavson went on to work as a nurse in the northern suburbs, while Watts was in graduate school and lived on the opposite side of the city.
“I just broke down,” Gustavson said. “I didn’t see how we were going to be able to spend time together to foster a relationship.”
They broke up, which was crushing for Watts, who believed Gustavson was “the one.”
“I was devastated,” he said.
Gustavson was also heartbroken, and “I regretted it from the time that I did it. I’ve had guilt over it for the last 42 years.”
Ultimately, though, both she and Watts moved on with their lives, which meant cutting off all communication with each other. They both got married, then divorced, and neither of them had children. Gustavson moved from Chicago to Portland in 1987 with her mother, and after working in Germany for about a year as an interpreter, Watts settled in Chicago.
Despite the growing years and miles that separated them, “I thought of her every day,” Watts said.
But he didn’t realize that Gustavson was thinking of him, too.
“I knew somehow this was an open chapter; it was never closed,” she said. “I knew there had to be more to this than the way it ended.”
Every time they considered reaching out to the other, life — and a fear of the unknown — got in the way. That continued until August 2020, when Gustavson resolved to finally find Watts, once and for all.
She scoured the web in search of her long-lost first love, scrolling tirelessly on social media and online directories.
“Everything came up a dead end,” Gustavson said. “It was like he didn’t exist.”
She searched for a period of several months with no luck. One day, though, she stumbled upon a possible lead: She found a name, accompanied by an address, of someone who she thought could be a relative of Watts. Gustavson wrote the person a letter, and it turned out to be his niece, whom he had not seen in years. Shortly after sending the note, Gustavson received a call from her.
“She told me he’s in a nursing home,” Gustavson said. “It was one of the happiest days of my life. At least I knew where he was.”
She called the nursing home, which is located just outside Chicago, and verified that Watts lived there. Then, she decided to write him a letter — to which he never replied.
Weeks went by with no word from Watts, but Gustavson was unwilling to give up. She called the nursing home again, and staff said he could not take her call — but they wouldn’t explain why.
“That’s when I made the decision that I had to find a resolution, and some kind of closure to all of this,” Gustavson said. “I was going to Chicago, and I did not tell anybody.”
On June 28, she flew into O’Hare International Airport, and subsequently showed up at the nursing home, she said, with “no idea what I was walking into.”
Upon her arrival, one of the staff told her she was Watts’s first visitor in 10 years.
She learned that he had been living at the nursing home since 2004 and had suffered two strokes that rendered him bedridden and debilitated, plus several other health complications, one of which led to him losing his left leg.
“He was in bad shape,” Gustavson said. “The man had virtually no one.”
Staff members brought Watts — who had no idea Gustavson was visiting him — downstairs in a reclining chair to meet her, and right away, he said “Jeanne?!”
“In that instant, I knew he still loved me and I still loved him, and this was going to be forever,” she said. “He grabbed my hand and would not let go. The two of us cried for about an hour and a half.”
“She was so beautiful, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her,” Watts said. “We knew we loved each other still.”
Although “he looked totally different than the guy I knew 50 years ago,” Gustavson said, “at the core of it, we are still the same people. He is still wonderful. He is still funny.”
Over the six days she spent in Chicago, “I gave him my undivided attention,” she continued. After nearly two decades in a nursing home, she realized “a lot of Steve’s personality disappeared within himself. But as I was there, little by little, he was starting to improve.”
After she flew back to Portland, she couldn’t get Watts off her mind and vowed to visit him again a few weeks later. She decided to tell her younger brother, who never knew she dated Watts in secret for nearly eight years, the whole story.
Tony Mathis, 64, was flabbergasted.
What awed him most about the story, he said, was that “his body has withered away, but she is ecstatic to have found him and have him in her life again, even in a different capacity.”
“That is the most important message here about love and relationships,” he continued. “The exterior fades, but what’s important is what’s on the inside.”
Mathis mailed Watts — who did not have a cellphone — a burner phone from Target, so that Gustavson could reach him regularly.
“I just know how important this all is to my sister, and I wanted to help in any way I can,” he said.
During their daily phone calls, Gustavson noticed that Watts “had no quality of life,” she said. “I got on another red-eye, and decided I’m not coming back without him.”
When she arrived at the nursing home and told Watts her idea to bring him back to Portland with her, he simply responded: “I’d follow you anywhere.”
It took several weeks to organize Watts’s medical transport, which cost $14,000. Friends, family and strangers contributed — and are continuing to contribute — to help cover travel expenses, as well as much-needed medical equipment and support for Watts.
After a 36-hour trip in a medical van, Gustavson and Watts arrived home in Portland on Aug. 8, where a crowd of neighbors — holding balloons, flowers and banners — eagerly awaited them.
“The neighborhood just came together all at once. It was wonderful,” said Tina Mattern, who has lived across the street from Gustavson for 30 years. “They are just precious together. The love is unfolding before our eyes, and it’s so beautiful.”
Mattern shared the love story with a local news station that featured the couple’s journey, because “right now, the world needs to hear good news and stories of hope,” she said.
After spending nearly two months in his new home, “Steve is flourishing. He is improving leaps and bounds,” said Gustavson, who is retired but cares for him around-the-clock as a private nurse, and also hired an aide to help. “He is not the same man I saw two months ago.”
“She saved my life,” said Watts. “If this is not heaven, it’s pretty close to it.”
Gustavson, for her part, is “happier than I have ever been,” she said. “It is the best decision that both of us have made.”
The couple spend quality time together each day, watching television, playing music and making up for lost time.
“He makes me feel like I’m 18 again,” Gustavson said. “He is tender and loving, and we make each other laugh. I can’t explain it. I just love the man.”
The feeling is mutual: “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Watts said. “And then some.”