A Chicago love story interrupted ends in a wedding 43 years later

On the morning of his wedding day, a half century after he first met the love of his life, Stephen Watts lay in bed feeling anxious.

A favorite 1960s Western played on the TV at the foot of the bed. A navy suit and starched shirt hung on a hook nearby.

“I’m just a bit scared right now,” he said.

His were not the typical pre-wedding jitters. Watts has had two strokes, and he’s an amputee who had once been homeless. Because of his frailty, he had barely left his room the last year. He’d been outside only once.

But elsewhere in the house, amid the whirl of activity, the love of his life, Jeanne Gustavson, was putting on a pale blue dress, checking her makeup and getting ready for a day she’d wanted for 43 years.

“Because I love her a whole lot, I can’t run — not from this,” said Watts, whose words often spill out in a slurred whisper. “She’s everything I ever wanted. No one in their right mind would leave her at the altar.”

Watts shares a laugh with Tina Mattern, a good friend and neighbor, and jokingly sings the Sesame Street “Rubber Duckie” song, displaying none of the pre-wedding jitters he said he was feeling Saturday morning. | Jaime Valdez, for the Chicago Sun-Times

Jaime Valdez/For the Sun-Times

And so Watts, 72, and Gustavson, 69, got married Saturday, 43 years after she broke off a relationship that began when they were both students at Loyola University Chicago — a decision she’s regretted all of her life.

It took six people to lift Watts into a wheelchair and roll him down a ramp into the couple’s sun-dappled backyard in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, where the couple now live. Gustavson came next. After all this time, Gustavson wanted it done the right way — so the groom hadn’t seen her in the blue dress.

He couldn’t take his eyes off her. She squeezed his hand. He leaned into her side. The guests’ eyes misted over.

“You’re my soul mate, my best friend, and I want to spend forever with you,” said Gustavson, reciting her vows.

“The first time I saw you, my heart whispered, ‘She’s the one.’ My heart was so right,” Watts said.

Gustavon’s brother, Tony Mathis, who’d driven from Southern California in a huge RV with his wife and three golden retrievers, pronounced the couple man and wife. The bride bent down to kiss the groom — twice. Or was it three times?

Gustavson first met Watts back in 1971, when they were both students at Loyola.She fell madly in the love with the tall “hunk” who was president of the college German Club.

But there was a problem: He is African American, and she is white. She lived in Mundelein with her mother and grandmother, who didn’t allow Black people in the house unless they were there for work. So the romance had to be kept a secret.

In college, Gustavson once went on a double date with her lifelong best friend Clare Drexler, the bride’s maid of honor Saturday. They went to a concert at Ravinia, putting Gustavson at great risk of being seen by someone who might tell her mother.

Secrecy was “not the way it should have been; it made me very sad,” Drexler said this week.

Gustavson couldn’t keep the secret and eventually told her mother, who went “ballistic,” Gustavson said.

The mother’s racism and Gustavson’s hectic life of being a nursing student doomed a relationship that had lasted seven years. So Gustavson broke it off. Watts was devastated.

They married other people, both got divorced, neither had any children.

Gustavson moved to Oregon in 1987, caring for her mother, who died in 2012. But Gustavson never forgot her first love. After some considerable sleuthing, she found him 42 years later in a south suburban nursing home.

He was a shadow of the man she’d known in college: he’d had two strokes, one leg amputated just above the knee. And he was all alone, having lost his mother and sister.

But the love had not dimmed. And so Gustavson, now a retired nurse, brought Watts back to live with her in Beaverton, a hilly suburb of Portland.

Rekindling the romance after 40 decades hasn’t been without challenges. Watts has been mostly confined to an upstairs bedroom since his arrival 14 months ago. Gustavson and his caregiver, Sandra Collins, have been working his withered limbs, and when they can, they ease Watts into a wheelchair. He left the house for the first time five weeks ago — just a trip to the backyard.

“He was just awestruck; he didn’t even have words for it, ” Gustavson said. “I said, ‘What do you like the best?’ He said, ‘The grass, the trees, the flowers.’ It was everything.”

Snippets of Watts’ life have come out over time. His failed marriage. His time in Germany as a German and English teacher. A spell as a paratrooper in the French Foreign Legion. And a spiral into depression after his sister died that led to homelessness in Chicago and his eventually ending up in a nursing home for 18 years.

Watts spends much of his day watching Westerns and playing chess with Collins — and, sometimes, his Catholic priest. He listens to CDs of his favorite classical music composers, which Gustavson has arranged alphabetically in nine plastic tubs.

On the eve of his wedding, Watts was overwhelmed. No cold feet, just anxious about leaving behind his four familiar walls for a garden filled with dozens of guests, musicians, photographers and a crew making a documentary.

“I’ve been trying to play it down. We make jokes about eloping so that he can avoid the hoopla,” Collins said.

But the big day went off without a hitch. Even the huge oak tree In Gustavson’s backyard stopped shedding its brittle autumn leaves long enough to complete the ceremony.

There was a first kiss and a first dance — to Johann Strauss’ Emperor Waltz, during which the couple held hands and swayed gently from side to side.

“I taught him how to waltz 50 years ago!” Gustavson shouted out.


Gustavson and Watts share their wedding vows as Clare Drexler, the maid of honor, looks on Saturday. | Jaime Valdez, for the Chicago Sun-Times

Jaime Valdez/For the Sun-Times

Tony Mathis said his sister’s relationship offered a lesson to all about following your heart.

“It doesn’t matter what others may say. What matters is how you feel and what’s in your heart,” Mathis said, tears in his eyes.

Tina Mattern, Gustavson’s close friend and neighbor, was still trying to wrap her mind around the “miracle” love story.

“Miracle is a word that people throw around, but this was a miracle,” said Mattern, recalling how Gustavson found Watts living without hope in a nursing home. “Every day, you lie there thinking, ‘God, just take me home.’ And then one day, the love of your life, that you haven’t seen in [42] years, walks in and she says, ‘Would you come home with me?’”

A little while later, seated beside his bride, Watts sipped a pint of German lager and feasted on a plate of sausages and pasta salad.

What would Gustavson’s mother have made of the wedding celebration? It’s a question Gustavson has been asked many times.

She has forgiven her mom. Gustavson, a devout Catholic, even asked her mother, “Please, please can you hold off on the bad weather in Oregon?”

It was sunny and in the mid-80s Saturday.

“With her being in Heaven or wherever she is on the other side, I think she understands now,” Gustavson said.

Before she could say any more, Watts interrupted, “If she doesn’t understand — ”

Watts made a loud raspberry sound. Then the newlyweds both burst into laughter.