Ottawa couple meets again 50 years later

It's not exactly puppy love.

Although, it may seem like it is for two Ottawa High School alumni.

"We feel like we're 15," Joan Stone, 68, of rural Waverly, said.

In November, she plans to wed George Stewart, 78, Lawrence.

It's not as if they are strangers, they've just taken the scenic route to each other.

They both attended the same one-room schoolhouse, Latimer School, south of Ottawa on Rock Creek Road. They both attended the same church and belonged to the Jayhawker 4-H Club.

"We did a lot of hanging out as a group," said Stone, whose family moved about one-eighth mile east of the school in March 1948, when she was in first grade.

"My earliest memories of George were of him singing," Stone said.

He sang at both their school and their church, which was across the street from the school.

She also heard a lot about Stewart, the oldest of five, from his younger siblings.

"Jack always talked about George with this adoring voice," she said about his younger brother who was her age. "I had enormous respect for him because of that."

"I remember her as the little girl who lived down the road," Stewart, whose family moved across the road from the school in 1931, when he was nine months old, said.

After graduating from Ottawa High School in 1948, Stewart married Donna Cartmill and farmed for awhile before attending Ottawa University to study music education. Challenges with the piano led him to J.C. Penney's where he worked at the Ottawa, Lawrence and Independence, Mo., locations until 1962.

"I moved to Lawrence without a job, four kids and a lot of faith," Stewart said.

Within five days, Stewart had two part-time positions at the University of Kansas including one as an accountant with the endowment association.

Those tenuous beginnings evolved into a 33-year tenure with the KU Endowment Association, which ended with his retirement as vice-president in 1995.

The former Joan Hay graduated from Ottawa High School in 1959. Her path led her to Robert "Bob" Stone, whom she married in 1968. They moved to Stone Mountain, Ga., just outside of Atlanta in 1970.

After about 15 years of work in broadcast media, she turned her home into an eco-friendly farm and raised registered dairy goats and then golden retrievers.

"I've never been afraid to try anything," Stone said.

About five years ago, Stone's husband told her that he wasn't going to be around much longer and wanted to take her back to where her friends and family were, she said.

What started as a few old friends getting together for coffee grew into yearly reunions at Pomona Lake that Stone and her husband would drive to and from Georgia in their RV.

In 2006, they moved to a farm in rural Waverly near the Osage County line.

The summer reunions at Pomona Lake continued and Stone's old classmate, Jack Stewart, was a regular attendee.

In 2008, he asked Stone if he could bring his brother, George, who had lost his wife of nearly 59 years in May to Parkinson's disease, along with him.

"I said, 'I can't see why not. He was part of the community too, bring him, by all means,'" she said.

"We met for the first time in 50 years at least," Stone said. "The last time I remember seeing him, he was the assistant manager at the Penney's store in Ottawa."

After the reunion, Stone remembers her husband, Bob, telling her that he thought George was a nice guy. A few weeks later, Bob passed away.

When Stewart found out he sent her a condolence card and a Christmas card followed soon after. They began e-mailing each other back and forth.

"It was good to have one another to walk through the grieving process online," Stone said. "It was good to have someone to share that with who understood what you were going through."

After months of online and counseling and catching each other up on their lives for the past 50 years, they decided to go for coffee after a church meeting.

Mother Nature had other plans.

An ice storm canceled church and their time to talk face-to-face.

"George said he wasn't going to accept that and e-mailed back with other dates to meet," Stone said with a huge smile.

They agreed on a time and then not only had coffee, but wine, dinner, and talked for hours as well.

"We had so much fun, we did it again the next day," she said.

They began seeing each other almost every other day for several months until April when Stewart stopped in to see Stone on his way to visit his daughter in Newton.

Before leaving he asked her what she would say if he asked her to marry him.

"I told him that I would probably say, 'Yes,'" she said.

When he returned a few days later, he was talking about things they would do when they were married, Stone said.

"I said, 'Wait, you haven't asked me yet,' and then I could see the cogs turning as he was remembering our conversation," Stone said.

"She wouldn't let me get away without saying it," he said with a smile.

Although their paths to each other have been unconventional, neither would choose a detour.

"I think the neat part of our relationship is we both loved our mates, and we have no difficulty discussing them," Stewart said. "I think it's a neat thing to be able to do that."

Stone agrees.

"George and Donna had a good marriage. Bob and I had a good marriage," Stone said. "I still love Bob. He still loves Donna."

"Love expands and love grows and this is good," she said.

When trying to put her and George's relationship into perspective, she looked to her experience as a mother.

"It's like when you have a baby and you think you'll never love anything as much. Then you have another and you love it just as much. You don't stop loving the other one."