Woman Pressured to End Interracial Relationship Reunites with True Love 42 Years Later

"We're trying to make up for 42 lost years," says Jeanne Gustavson, who found her soulmate in a nursing facility and brought him home

Jeanne Gustavson and Stephen Watts 
Jeanne Gustavson and Stephen Watts . Photo: Jaime Valdez/Sun-Times media

After spending decades thinking about her college boyfriend, Jeanne Gustavson set out on a mission to find him.

"He was my first love. He was my true love," Gustavson, 68, tells PEOPLE in this week's Love issue.

She first met Stephen Watts in 1971, when she was a freshman and he was a senior at Chicago's Loyola University.

"He was very striking," Gustavson says of Watts, who was president of the German club, and like her, a German major. "Extremely handsome, dressed impeccably, always a gentleman — everything you'd want in a boyfriend."

But because she was white and he was Black, her mother — with whom Gustavson lived — objected to the pairing.

"She just went ballistic," Gustavson remembers. "She didn't want this relationship to happen at all."

Though her mother went to the dean's office and asked university officials to keep the couple apart, Gustavson and Watts managed to secretly date for seven years.

They ran into more difficulty when she graduated nursing school and landed a job that required a long commute and late shifts. It kept her away from Watts, who didn't own a car.

"I was completely overwhelmed by everything," Gustavson says. "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."

Gustavson and Watts still entertained the idea of marriage, but at the time, a happy ending seemed impossible.

"I would've lost my entire family," she says. "I knew that if I did marry him, I probably wouldn't see my family again."

One evening, standing at the nurse's station, she told him over the phone, "I love you, but I just can't do this."

He was crushed and didn't say a word. They'd go the next several decades without speaking.

"I regretted it then, I regretted the way I did it, but I did it," she says.

RELATED VIDEO: Jennifer Lopez on Happiness, Marry Me and Her 'Beautiful Love Story' with Ben Affleck

Her Search Begins

Cut to a year ago: Gustavson was a divorced retiree, and her mother was no longer alive. She began looking for Watts from her home in Cedar Mill, Oregon, but he was nowhere to be found on social media.

"Everything came up a dead end when I tried to search for him," she says. "There was virtually no trace of him."

For more romantic reunions, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Determined to apologize for the way their relationship ended, she continued the search for about seven months. Then, in April 2021, Gustavson had a breakthrough: she found a mailing address for his niece and wrote her a letter.

"She told me he was in a nursing home, and that's something I had never in a million years imagined," Gustavson says.

In May 2021, she called the nursing home and asked to speak to Watts. Staff said patients don't have bedside phones, so she wrote him a letter instead. There was no response. She called again and asked to speak to him, but a nurse told her he couldn't talk on the phone.

"Being a nurse, immediately, I started thinking of different things that might be wrong with him, where he couldn't write to me," she says. "I made a decision to go to Chicago to see Steve. I had to have resolution."

"I needed to know: Was he okay? Was he married? Would he forgive me?" she adds.

Their Sweet Reunion

In late June, Gustavson surprised him at the nursing home. He recognized her instantly, said her name and started to cry.

"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," Gustavson says.

She learned that Watts 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 says.

But Gustavson didn't give up on him.

"I knew he still loved me. I just knew," she says. "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."

Getting Answers

Gustavson and Watts spent six days catching up and filling in the blanks at the nursing home. After earning a master's degree in linguistics, Watts — who speaks five languages — taught at the college level in Germany. Then he and some friends joined the French Foreign Legion and were paratroopers for about three years before returning to the U.S.

After living with his sister and then a friend — both of whom died — and working as a translator, he became homeless and lived on the streets of Chicago for about three years.

Finally, he signed himself into the nursing home, where he spent 18 years before his former flame walked through the door.

As for their family lives, both Watts and Gustavson had married other people — her marriage lasted for three years, while his ended after 12 years — and neither had children.

"I just knew things were going to work out," says Gustavson, who returned home to Oregon after those precious days at the nursing home and stayed in touch with Watts over the phone.

Jeanne Gustavson and Steve Watts reunited after 4 decades apart
Stephen Watts on the trek from Illinois to Oregon. Courtesy Jeanne Gustavson

Second Chances

When Watts started talking about dying, Gustavson told him to wait for her. She took a red-eye flight to Chicago and asked him if he would come live with her. He said he would follow her anywhere.

Because he can't sit in a regular wheelchair, the duo couldn't board a plane and fly off together. So they drove for 36 hours in a medical transport van and arrived at her home on Aug. 8.

"We're trying to make up for 42 lost years," Gustavson says.

With their heartbreaking past behind them, the duo has settled into a peaceful life at home together. He likes to play chess and listen to his favorite Bach and Beethoven compositions, while she enjoys whipping up his favorite German dish, Rouladen.

"She is beautiful. She is wonderful. She is my heart and soul," Watts tells PEOPLE. "I love her."

This time, he says, they plan to stick together: "I want to live with her always."

Related Articles