Most people never forget the one that got away. Maybe they met in college. Perhaps they were a friend of a friend, a neighbor or someone from work. At 68 years old, Jeannie Gustavson has spent most of her lifetime remembering the one who got away, or more accurately, the one she let go.
"He was my first true love. That doesn't go away," Jeannie said from her Northwest Portland home.
Fifty years ago, Jeannie and Steve Watts were college sweethearts at Loyola University Chicago.
"He was very handsome," Jeannie said. "He was 6-foot-4. I like tall guys! He was extremely intelligent, well spoken. He was very caring, he always treated me like a lady. He was a gentleman."
Even so, Jeannie said none of that would have mattered to her mother, who did not approve of interracial dating. That included Steve, who was Black.
"I was very hurt and very baffled by what my family did and said," Jeannie said. "We had to keep our relationship a secret."
Jeannie and Steve kept that secret for the nearly eight years they were together. During that time, Jeannie became a nurse and Steve got a master’s degree in linguistics and taught German. But over time, their relationship became strained, first by distance then opposite schedules. One day, it all became too much for Jeannie. She broke up with Steve on her work break over the phone.
"I regretted what I did right after I did it," she said. "It was almost immediate. I knew I shouldn't have ended the relationship the way I did but at that point, I didn't know what else to do."
Chapter 1: Hoping for a miracle
The summer of 2021 marked 42 years since that breakup. Since then, Jeannie got married and divorced. She cared for countless patients, then retired. Through everything, Jeannie never forgot Steve, and last fall, she set out to find him. She scoured the internet for family records, phone numbers and addresses. Nothing panned out. After seven months of searching, she was ready to stop.
"Short of hiring a private detective, what recourse would I have?" Jeannie said. "If nothing comes up then I'm done."
That was Jeannie's resolve before making one final effort to find Steve. She mailed a letter to a person whom she hoped was Steve's niece in Iowa. In what Jeannie describes as a miracle, Steve's niece responded. She told Jeannie that Steve was living in a care home outside of Chicago.
"I can't tell you how happy I was when I found out where he was," Jeannie said.
Jeannie wrote Steve a letter right away, but never heard back. She called the care home and was told simply that Steve could not respond. With nothing else to go on, Jeannie flew to Chicago in July. She walked into the care home and waited for Steve in the visitor's room. When a nurse wheeled Steve in to see her, Jeannie said their connection was instant.
"After not seeing him for all those years, the second word out of his mouth was the nickname he gave me 50 years ago and I just lost it," Jeannie said. "I knew at that moment that he still loved me and this time it was going to be forever."
Jeannie learned that 15 years ago, Steve suffered two strokes. She also learned that she was Steve's first visitor in 10 years.
"I did a very stupid thing 42 years ago and I've regretted it every day since," Jeannie said. "All I can do now is love him the best I can, see to it that he's happy and give him the quality of life that he really deserves and he's missed all these years."
After that July visit, Jeannie flew back home. Her neighbor and friend Tina Mattern, had no idea why Jeannie had gone.
"I said, 'So how was your trip?' Tina said. "She pulls out a bottle of Fireball Whiskey and a box of Kleenex and says, 'I'm going to tell you a story and it's a love story.'"
Chapter 2: Making up for the past
Jeannie's brother, Tony Mathis, was just a kid when Jeannie and Steve were dating. Like the rest of his family, Tony never knew they were a couple, which makes him sad.
"I do recall her wanting to bring Steve home and that not going over very well," said Tony from his home in California.
Since learning about Steve, Tony has done everything he can to help his sister. He sent Steve a cell phone so he could talk with Jeannie while they were apart and he helped set up a medical transport for Steve from Illinois to Oregon.
"The fact that they're together, they still love each other, they still enjoy each other's company, that's really all that matters," Steve said.
Jeannie pooled her savings. She came up with $14,000 to cover Steve's medical transport. Friends pitched in where they could. Ten days later, Jeannie was on a plane back to Chicago and this time, she wasn't coming home without Steve. On a bright August morning, the pair loaded into a medical transport van and hit the road. Two days and 2,100 miles later, they were home. Together at last.
"I wake up in the morning thinking about this love story going on across the street," Tina said. "It's just beautiful."
Chapter 3: A new life together
Steve is settling into Jeannie’s home. He has a comfortable room and bed of his own and Jeannie as his main caretaker. Jeannie also hired an aide to help, and it turns out she shares Steve’s love for chess. She and Steve played for two hours on Friday.
"He is quite good even though he hasn't played in over 12 years," Jeannie said. "Every day brings a new surprise!"
In the 42 years that she and Steve were apart, Jeannie always believed they carried each other in their hearts. Now, she knows it's true.
"I loved him very much when we were younger and I knew he loved me," Jeannie said. "But it wasn't until all of this and we've been talking, I didn't know how much he loved me. I really didn't know."