a wedding 50 years in the making

CHICAGO (AP) — They first dated 50 years ago.

But it was only late last year that Steve Watts got up the nerve to pop the question to Jeanne Gustavson.

She thought she misheard. So she made him repeat it.

“Well, of course, I’ll marry you!” she told him.

Now, the couple who met so long ago while students at Loyola University Chicago but saw their love thwarted decades ago by a mother’s hatred are planning their wedding, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

Watts, an amputee who has had two strokes, had been living in a south suburban nursing home, thinking he’d been forgotten by the outside world.

Then, last June, he heard from Gustavson. She had tracked down her first love after 42 years apart. Eventually, she brought him back to her home outside Portland, Ore.

They might have married long ago, when Gustavson fell in love with the tall “hunk” who was president of the Loyola German club.

At first, theirs was a secret love because Gustavson is white and Watts is Black, and Gustavson’s mother thought Black people should come into their house only to clean or make repairs.

But Gustavson couldn’t keep the secret. She told her mother, who she says went “ballistic.”

They tried to make things work. But the demands of college life and then of trying to navigate their way in the world led to their breakup after seven years.

Each married someone else, both marriages ending in divorce.

She moved to Oregon, where she worked as a nurse and took care of her mother until her death in 2012. She retired three years ago.

Then, she decided to track down her first love, her “true love.”

After Gustavson found him last year and Watts told her, “I’ll follow you anywhere,” they’ve tried to pick up where they left off.

But love is different for two people well into their retirement years.

Watts can’t get out of bed and needs physical therapy every day. He relies on Gustavson and a hired caregiver for almost everything, including bathing.

“Our favorite time is napping together,” she says.

At the foot of Watts’ bed, a painted sign reads: “I love you more than all the stars.”

He tells her one more thing is different for him now: “I love you more intensely.”

Gustavson says what they have now is “more precious. We know this is it. This is forever for us. There is nothing else beyond this.”

Neighbors say Gustavson used to keep mostly to herself. But now many help with meals and other chores. And they say she has come out of her shell and “giggles” constantly.

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.

But that’s the past. Their future involves a wedding — some time in October, Gustavson says.

Tina Mattern, a neighbor, says that when they told her the news, “They were both grinning like little kids. I said, ‘How are you going to fit 200 people in this room?’ ”

They hope to be able to ease Watts out of bed into a chair on the ground floor. It would be a tight squeeze in his bedroom.

“It’s unfortunate or sad that this it’s happening now and didn’t happen 40 years ago,” says Tony Mathis, Gustavson’s brother. “But better late than never. They definitely love each other. It’s great. I support it 100%.”

Gustavson says she finally has forgiven her mother. And she hopes that somehow she’ll be watching.

“I feel she’d be OK with it now,” she says, “that she finally understands.”