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'I didn't know how much he loved me': Portland woman searches for college sweetheart 42 years after breakup

Jeannie Gustavson almost gave up on finding her lost love. Then one small break revealed something she never expected.

Katherine Cook

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Most people never forget the one that got away. Maybe they met in college. Perhaps they were a friend of a friend, a neighbor or someone from work. At 68 years old, Jeannie Gustavson has spent most of her lifetime remembering the one who got away, or more accurately, the one she let go.

"He was my first true love. That doesn't go away," Jeannie said from her Northwest Portland home.

Fifty years ago, Jeannie and Steve Watts were college sweethearts at Loyola University Chicago.

"He was very handsome," Jeannie said. "He was 6-foot-4. I like tall guys! He was extremely intelligent, well spoken. He was very caring, he always treated me like a lady. He was a gentleman."

Even so, Jeannie said none of that would have mattered to her mother, who did not approve of interracial dating. That included Steve, who was Black.

"I was very hurt and very baffled by what my family did and said," Jeannie said. "We had to keep our relationship a secret."

Credit: Jeannie Gustavson

Jeannie and Steve kept that secret for the nearly eight years they were together. During that time, Jeannie became a nurse and Steve got a master’s degree in linguistics and taught German. But over time, their relationship became strained, first by distance then opposite schedules. One day, it all became too much for Jeannie. She broke up with Steve on her work break over the phone.

"I regretted what I did right after I did it," she said. "It was almost immediate. I knew I shouldn't have ended the relationship the way I did but at that point, I didn't know what else to do."