'I knew that if I did marry him, I probably wouldn't see my family again,' 68-year-old Jeanne Gustavson revealed.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 4, 2022. It has since been updated.
After spending most of her adult life with regret for breaking up with her college sweetheart, 68-year-old Jeanne Gustavson took a leap of faith last year: She decided to track him down. "He was my first love. He was my true love," the retiree told PEOPLE. Gustavson met Steve Watts in 1971 at a gathering of the German Club at Loyola University Chicago, where she was a freshman and he was a senior. "He was very striking," Gustavson said of Watts, who was president of the club and a German major like her. "Extremely handsome, dressed impeccably, always a gentleman—everything you'd want in a boyfriend."
“I regretted it from the time that I did it," Jeanne Gustavson said about breaking up with her first love. https://t.co/FfqkuAjyYe— The Seattle Times (@seattletimes) October 6, 2021
Their connection was instant. "It became very apparent very quickly that we had feelings for each other," Gustavson shared with The Washington Post. "We were falling in love." However, they faced one problem: Watts was Black and Gustavson was white. Her mother, with whom she lived at the time, objected to the pairing and forbade her from seeing him. "They had this mentality that Blacks and whites don't belong together," explained Gustavson, who was raised in the northern suburbs of Chicago, and now lives in Portland, Oregon. "[Her mother] just went ballistic. She didn't want this relationship to happen at all."
Fifty years ago, Jeanne Gustavson met a man she believes would have made the perfect husband. But her family objected, because his skin was not White. So, she broke up with Steve Watts – but she never forgot about him. Decades later, Jeanne found him again https://t.co/kuLjVoHLeS— Pe-sh (@SisterMomGranny) January 16, 2022
Although Gustavson's mother contacted the dean's office and asked university officials to keep the pair apart, the couple managed to date for seven years in secret. Unfortunately, their relationship hit a rocky patch when she graduated nursing school and landed a job that required a long commute and late shifts. It kept them away from each other and ultimately the pressure of it all became too much for Gustavson. "I was completely overwhelmed by everything," she said. "The family issue was always weighing on me because it fractured the relationship between my mother and myself forever. She was always my mother and I always loved her, but it affected our relationship for the rest of my life."
For most of her adult life, 68-year-old Jeanne Gustavson has suffered from chronic regret for breaking up with her college sweetheart. https://t.co/QYa5M429Qe— WJZ | CBS Baltimore (@wjz) January 15, 2022
Even though Gustavson and Watts still entertained the idea of marriage, at the time it seemed impossible that their love story would have a happy ending. "I would've lost my entire family," she said. "I knew that if I did marry him, I probably wouldn't see my family again." Finally, one evening, standing at the nurse's station, Gustavson broke up with the love of her life over the phone. "I love you, but I just can't do this," she told him. "I was devastated," Watts revealed. They'd go the next four decades without hearing from each other. "I regretted it from the time that I did it. I've had guilt over it for the last 42 years," Gustavson admitted.
Jeanne Gustavson fell hard for Steve Watts. But her family didn’t approve because she’s white and he’s Black. They couldn’t make it work. Now, having come through marriages, divorces, retirement and serious health problems, they’re back together once more. https://t.co/3seOAsM2H7— Chicago Sun-Times (@Suntimes) October 15, 2021
Eventually, both moved on with their lives. They both got married and then divorced. Neither had children. While Gustavson moved to Portland in 1987 with her mother, Watts settled in Chicago. Yet, neither of them could forget the other. "I knew somehow this was an open chapter; it was never closed," Gustavson said. "I knew there had to be more to this than the way it ended." Finally, in August 2020, she resolved to find Watts. It wasn't easy. "Everything came up a dead end when I tried to search for him," she recalled. "There was virtually no trace of him."
“A day didn’t go by that I didn’t think of him.”— BBC World Service (@bbcworldservice) November 9, 2021
Jeanne Gustavson and Steve Watts were students when they fell in love.
Work put a strain on their relationship and they broke up but decades later they reunited: https://t.co/nPx2MRPQV4 pic.twitter.com/3KM3Zb0JKU
For about seven months, Gustavson tried every avenue she could think of to get information about Watts' whereabouts. In April 2021, she had a breakthrough: she found a mailing address for his niece and wrote her a letter. "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." After several failed attempts to reach him at the nursing home, in late June, Gustavson showed up at the nursing home to meet Watts in person. "It was wonderful and it was sad at the same time, because he didn't look at all like when I knew him 50 years ago," she said. Watts had suffered two strokes, and his left leg was amputated due to infections during his stay in the nursing home.
"It just broke my heart," she said. But Gustavson didn't want to lose him a second time. "I knew he still loved me. I just knew," she shared. "We spent the next hour and a half together, and he clung onto my arm with a death grip. We talked, we cried and we found out that neither one of us was married at this point and we still loved each other." They spent the next six days catching up with each other before Gustavson had to return home. Soon, she asked him if he would come live with her. "I'd follow you anywhere," he replied. Since Watts can't sit in a regular wheelchair, flying wasn't an option. Thanks to the support of friends, family and strangers who were moved by their story, Gustavson was able to arrange a medical transport van to bring her first love home.
After a 36-hour trip in the medical van, Gustavson and Watts arrived at her home on August 8. "We're trying to make up for 42 lost years," Gustavson said. The pair has since settled into a peaceful life at home together. "She is beautiful. She is wonderful. She is my heart and soul," Watts said. "I love her. I want to live with her always."