College Sweethearts Fall Back in Love and Remarry 40 Years After Divorcing: 'It Was Love at Second Sight'

"I looked her in the eye and I thought, ‘This is it,’” Paul Mattingly tells PEOPLE of his connection with wife Laura Lee Estes

Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly
Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly at their two weddings in 1980 and 2021. Photo: Courtesy Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly

Sometimes the only thing love needs to blossom is a second chance — and decades after divorcing, Paul Mattingly and Laura Lee Estes are doing just that.

The two love birds married each other for the second time in February 2021, more than 40 years after they first exchanged vows in September 1980. Their first marriage, they agree, was destined to come to an end.

"We were just very young, and we didn't really know how to be married, I don't think, at that time," Paul, 64, tells PEOPLE.

The two met during their freshman year at Centre College in Kentucky while Paul pledged Phi Kappa Tau fraternity and Laura Lee was a fraternity little sister. Though he had fallen head over heels for Laura Lee, Paul says she wouldn't agree to date him until their final year of college.

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"We were great friends," Laura Lee, also 64, recalls. "The best of friends."

But Laura Lee kept Paul on his toes and only agreed to marry him a year after their graduation. The couple then settled down in Paul's hometown of Hyden, Kentucky, where he worked for his father in telecommunications and she taught at a local school.

Looking back at those first few years, both Paul and Laura Lee agree they didn't know what they wanted in life. They also didn't know how to talk about small problems before they turned into big ones.

Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly
Paul Mattingly and Laura Lee Estes at their first wedding in 1980. Courtesy Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly

After four years, they divorced in 1984. They even signed papers on April Fool's Day, Laura Lee remembers.

Despite their marriage coming to the end, both felt they could remain friends.

"We were so close," Laura Lee says. "Paul would always remember our anniversary. He would send flowers. He's very sweet, very thoughtful."

Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly
Paul Mattingly and Laura Lee Estes in their earlier years. Courtesy Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly

The former flames made it a point to talk once a year, but soon, the calls became less frequent.

"As time went on, you just start having that distance," she adds.

After about a decade, Paul remarried, had a child, and then divorced again after four years. Meanwhile, Laura Lee became a school guidance counselor, retired, and became a private therapist. She never remarried.

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Then, in December 2019, Laura Lee decided to take a chance. While driving from her home in Plano, Texas, to her parents' home in Georgia, she asked Paul — who was living in Alabama — if he'd like to meet for dinner in Birmingham.

Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly
Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly. Courtesy Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly

Neither of them was dating anyone at the time, but the moment Paul saw Laura Lee that night, he knew his life was never going to be the same.

"It was love at second sight," Paul says. "I looked at her and knew it was. I looked her in the eye and I thought, 'This is it.'"

Laura Lee adds: "It's just like, that person, that best friend that you haven't seen for years, you see each other and there's no hesitation."

The pair shared Saturday night phone dates for weeks until Paul joined Laura Lee in Texas just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

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"The thing that we thought most of all, when we finally did get back together was, 'Gosh, we wasted a lot of time.' We wish we'd gotten back together earlier,'" Paul says of the time they spent catching up.

Not one to want to wait, Paul made the drive to Georgia in November 2020 to ask Laura Lee's brother and mother for her hand. Then he took her to a French restaurant and proposed.

The two remarried on Feb. 12, 2021, and held a Kentucky Derby-themed wedding reception in May.

Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly
Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly. Courtesy Laura Lee Estes and Paul Mattingly

"Paul is such a good man," Laura Lee says of her husband. "He is kind and sensitive. He's honest. He loves me. He wants the best for me."

And now that they're older, they're both convinced that this time their marriage is forever.

"We both do a better job communicating," Laura Lee says. "We laugh a lot."

"The only bittersweet thing to all of this, is here we are now at 64. We're making up for lost time," she continues. "Sometimes I'm sad that 40 years had to pass, and yet, I think that's part of what makes it so extra special right now."

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