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The man whose name is on the now-historic case opens up about the sentimental charms her had with him

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Updated June 27, 2015 10:50 AM
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Credit: Courtesy Jim Obergefell

Goosebumps, tears and pride.

That’s what Friday’s Supreme Court decision upholding a Constitutional right to marriage equality meant to the man whose name is on the historic case, Jim Obergefell.

Obergefell, first in line to get a seat in the courtroom Friday morning, tells PEOPLE that the tears came the moment Justice Anthony M. Kennedy read the case number on the decision he was about the announce.

“I had memorized our case number so when he said it out loud, I had this momentary freak out, where I kinda jumped up on my toes from my seat and squeaked,” the Cincinnati realtor tells PEOPLE. “I just started crying and didn’t stop. It just felt so good to hear a Supreme Court justice talk about how our marriage, our relationship, and relationships like ours deserve respect.”

Obergefell, who had, for the first time in all his visits to the Court (he was inside for oral arguments back in April and, since then, back every day a decision could come down) scored a center seat, said he didn’t stop crying almost until Kennedy stopped speaking.

“He had maybe two paragraphs left and I finally got myself together,” Obergefell said with a chuckle.

He carried with him bittersweet mementos of the marriage he’s been fighting for – in the breast pocket of his suit jacket, a photo of his late husband, John Arthur; in the hollowed-out channels of his wedding band, a bit of Arthur’s remains – plus one lucky charm. A friend he met while in Washington for oral arguments, Raymond Braun, had given Obergefell the keychain – a brass die featuring a four-leaf clover, horseshoe and other lucky symbols on each face – that Braun had with him in Ireland when that nation voted overwhelmingly for marriage equality earlier this year.

“It brought him luck and he wanted me to have it,” Obergefell says. “And it worked!”

Outside the court, as security officers took the unprecedented step of allowing hundreds to joyously gather on the court plaza, Obergefell savored the moment demonstrators sang the National Anthem. “It gave me goosebumps,” he says.

“It was beautiful to hear that on a day when, inside that courtroom, I felt more like an equal American than I had in a very long time.”

Now that his surname is destined for a place in American history books alongside the likes of Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, the soft-spoken man known for his bow ties says he can’t wrap his head around that enormity.

“I don’t feel like I belong in that company in some ways; I don’t feel worthy. This was just John and me fighting for our marriage. I know it is so much bigger than that, but when I think of this case, I keep coming back to just the two of us. We were living for the day because the future meant John’s death and we didn’t want to think about that.”

The couple had a tradition of drinking champagne on special occasions and Obergefell says he did manage “a sip in John’s honor” in a busy afternoon of press interviews. Before flying home to Cincinnati Friday night, he hopes to find an airport bar to pour him a full flute – “not that it will be incredibly tasty,” he says with a laugh.

With appearances in Cincinnati and San Francisco Pride parades on his immediate calendar, Obergefell says the future has been easier to imagine now – and it is not likely to include a return to real estate.

“It’s an open question: what can I do in my life that allows me to keep doing what I discovered I love, which is fighting for our rights, fighting for our equality,” he says. “There’s a lot more work that we need to do. I can’t step back from that now. So I have some thinking to do and some dreaming to do.”

And does that dreaming include someday falling in love again and, finally, being able to marry in Ohio, which has been home all his life?

He gets quiet. Pauses. “You know, for the first year and a half after John died, that was something I couldn’t even think about. But I find I don’t have that immediate gut reaction to the thought.”

He recalls how, as Arthur lay dying, a friend would come to the house to sit with him while Obergefell stepped out for some air. “Every single time when I got home, she would tell me, ‘John talked again about what he always talks about – he wants you to love again.'”

“So I have to be open to it. It’s a way to honor my husband’s wishes.”