Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

Sometimes happy endings get even happier.

Last year, PEOPLE featured the story of a woman who reconnected with her long-lost love after 42 years apart. And just a few months ago, the couple — Stephen Watts and Jeanne Watts (formerly Gustavson) — got married!

“When he proposed, I said, ‘A thousand times yes!'” Jeanne, now 69, tells PEOPLE for the Valentine’s Day special in this week’s issue. “We’re trying to make up for 42 lost years.”

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

“He was my first love. He was my true love,” Jeanne said in last year’s Love issue.

But Jeanne’s mom strongly objected to the relationship because she didn’t want her White daughter seeing a Black man.

“She just went ballistic,” Jeanne said. “She didn’t want this relationship to happen at all.”

Real Life Love rollout

Still, the pair secretly dated for seven years. But after Jeanne graduated nursing school and landed a job that required a long commute and late shifts, she faced difficulties seeing Stephen, who didn’t own a car.

“I was completely overwhelmed by everything,” Jeanne 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.”

The couple talked about marriage, but Jeanne was afraid of taking that next step.

“I would’ve lost my entire family,” she said.

Standing at the nurse’s station during her shift one evening, Jeanne told him over the phone, “I love you, but I just can’t do this.”

Real Life Love rollout

Crushed by the news, Stephen was speechless. It was an abrupt ending that would haunt Jeanne for years to come.

“I regretted it then, I regretted the way I did it, but I did it,” said Jeanne.

They would spend the next four decades leading separate lives and not speaking to each other.

Cut to 2021, when Jeanne was a divorced retiree whose mother was no longer alive. She began looking for Stephen from her home in Cedar Mill, Oregon, but she couldn’t locate him on social media.

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

In April 2021, Jeanne found a mailing address for his niece and wrote her a letter.

“She told me he was in a nursing home,” Jeanne said, “and that’s something I had never in a million years imagined.”

For more inspiring love stories, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

In May 2021, she called the nursing home and asked for Stephen. A staff member explained that patients didn’t have bedside phones. She wrote him a letter, but there was no response. She called again, only for a nurse to tell her that he couldn’t talk on the phone.

Real Life Love rollout

Do you have a sweet story the world needs to know? Send the details to love@people.com for a chance to be featured in Real-Life Love, People.com’s series dedicated to sharing extraordinary connections and heartfelt gestures.

In late June 2021, Jeanne traveled to Chicago to talk to him in person.

“I needed to know: Was he okay? Was he married? Would he forgive me?” she said.

When she walked into the room, Stephen recognized her instantly, said her name and started to cry.

“I knew he still loved me,” she said.

On Aug. 8, 2021, he moved into her Oregon home — and he’s been there ever since.

Real Life Love rollout

“She is wonderful. She is my heart and soul,” Stephen, now 73, told PEOPLE. “I want to live with her always.”

A few months later, he asked her to marry him. The pair said “I do” on Oct. 15, 2022 in front of about 65 guests at the couple’s home. Their Norfolk terriers, Tushi and Jeffie, were ring bearers.

“We can spend the rest of our lives together making plans,” says the woman who now goes by Jeanne Watts. “I gladly took his last name. I’ve wanted it for a long time.”